As the legal cannabis industry continues to grow, so have concerns about workplace safety and health. Tragically, a work-related asthma death in the cannabis industry has brought attention to the potential respiratory hazards that workers may face.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the first known work-related asthma death in the cannabis industry occurred in Massachusetts last year.
In January 2022, a 27-year-old woman died from an asthma attack while working as a production technician in a MA cannabis cultivation and processing facility. She had been working for the facility for seven months and had spent three of those months processing and handling cannabis flower buds. Although this tragedy is the only reported asthma-related death in the cannabis industry to date, several cases of non-fatal respiratory disease among MA cannabis workers have also been reported.
Workplace asthma can occur in many occupations, but workers in the cannabis industry face several unique risks. It is essential for both employers and employees to be aware of the early indicators of workplace asthma, potential respiratory hazards in the cannabis industry, and the steps that can be taken to enhance worker safety.
What is Work-related Asthma?
Work-related asthma refers to asthma that is exacerbated by or directly caused by workplace conditions or exposures. It can manifest as new-onset asthma or worsening of pre-existing asthma due to occupational factors. Individuals working in various industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, and now the cannabis industry, may be at risk of developing work-related asthma due to exposure to allergens, irritants, or toxic substances in the workplace.
Early Indicators of Workplace Asthma
Recognizing the early indicators of workplace asthma can help in addressing and preventing its progression. Symptoms may include:
- Coughing and Wheezing — Persistent or worsening coughing and wheezing, particularly during or after work hours, can be indicative of workplace asthma.
- Shortness of Breath — Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, especially when exposed to certain substances in the workplace, should be considered a potential warning sign.
- Chest Tightness — Employees experiencing tightness in the chest or discomfort during work hours should seek medical evaluation for potential workplace-related factors.
It is essential for employers and employees to be vigilant in recognizing these early signs and addressing them promptly to prevent further exacerbation of asthma symptoms.
Potential Respiratory Hazards in Cannabis Industry
Cannabis workers may be exposed to various respiratory hazards that can contribute to the development or exacerbation of work-related asthma. These hazards may include:
- Allergens — Handling cannabis plants or products may expose workers to allergens such as pollen, mold, or dust, triggering respiratory symptoms.
- Irritants — Exposure to irritants such as pesticides, fertilizers, or cleaning chemicals in cannabis cultivation and processing facilities can lead to respiratory irritation and potential long-term health effects.
- Particulate Matter — Inhalation of fine particulate matter during cultivation, processing, or packaging activities can contribute to respiratory issues and pose long-term health risks.
Given the potential respiratory hazards present in the cannabis industry, it is imperative for employers to prioritize the safety and well-being of their workforce.
Steps Employers Can Take to Improve Cannabis Worker Safety
To mitigate the risk of work-related asthma and promote a safe work environment, employers in the cannabis industry can take proactive measures, including:
- Proper Ventilation — Implementing adequate ventilation systems in cultivation and processing facilities can help reduce exposure to airborne contaminants and maintain air quality.
- Safe Handling Procedures — Providing comprehensive training on the safe handling of cannabis products, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), can minimize the risk of respiratory exposure.
- Regular Hazard Assessments — Conducting routine evaluations of workplace hazards and air quality monitoring can identify potential respiratory risks and inform the implementation of preventive measures.
- Employee Education — Educating workers about the early signs of workplace asthma, encouraging reporting of symptoms, and promoting a culture of safety and health awareness can foster a proactive approach to respiratory health.
Increased Surveillance and Advocacy for Worker Safety
Due to the risk of work-related asthma and other respiratory diseases in the cannabis industry, increased surveillance and advocacy for worker safety are critical. Employers, regulatory agencies, and legal advocacy groups must collaborate to establish stringent safety standards, promote worker education, and ensure compliance with occupational health regulations.
Contact a Massachusetts Work Injury Lawyer Today
As advocates for workers’ rights and safety, the workplace injury team at Altman & Altman, LLP is here to help you obtain the compensation and justice that you deserve. We are committed to holding accountable those who neglect their duty to provide a safe work environment and to advocating for full compensation for workers impacted by work-related health issues. Contact Altman & Altman, LLP today for a free and confidential consultation about your case.