Cannabis sativa has been selectively bred for thousands of years. There are a variety of cannabis species, of which the most commonly used and widely consumed are hemp and marijuana.

This December marks two years since the most recent Farm Bill, also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, was signed into law.  “A comprehensive package of agriculture, conservation, rural development, research, and food assistance,” the Farm Bill dictates food policy in the United States. Among the changes the law brought about was to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and redefine it under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 as:

the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

Although Federal law prohibits the cultivation, transport and consumption of marijuana, lawmakers in 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have implemented medical marijuana programs. These programs regulate marijuana and the related medical, commercial and scientific ventures.

Since 2018, the hemp industry has experienced, “a 455% boost in productivity”. The “green rush” has flooded the market with products derived from hemp fiber, leaves, oil and seeds to produce food and drink, textiles, pharmaceuticals and building material. It has fueled the industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana industries and set off a domino effect of opportunities for everyone along the line of production – including farmworkers.

“The migrant community, they’re the most efficient workers out there,” “They’re the best workers. I don’t think you could do this with a bunch of stoners.” 

– Jon Friesell, owner of Gold Coast Cannabis

However, the plant’s resurgence precipitates issues regarding worker health and safety, and there are a lot of unknowns. According to UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health & Safety, “there is an urgent research need to identify the major hazards.” In a 2017 report by the Marijuana Occupational Health and Safety Work Group, workers face a number of biological, chemical and physical hazards. For example, working indoors may compromise the air quality; the high humidity needed to grow cannabis promotes mold growth.  And with, “at least 63% of hemp harvesting done by hand,” there is a lot at stake for farmworkers.

Trimming table on cannabis farm

The Marijuana Occupational Health and Safety Work Group of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment identified numerous potential hazards working in the marijuana industry.

Table summary of some of the potential hazards:

With some wages starting at $20 per hour, workers can earn up to $1000 a week.  According to a report published by Humboldt State University, “the situation for trimmers contrasts so dramatically with the average earnings of farm workers employed in legal crops such as apples and oranges that the marijuana industry may be ‘an ag anomaly.’” The report adds, “The average farm worker in a legal crop earns almost $8 per hour, although piece rates in the apple and orange industries actually average less than the federal minimum of $7.25, while annual wages are under $13,000 per year for individuals and $16,000 for families. These income levels are well below the poverty line.”

This disparity in wages will inevitably draw many farmworkers into the industry, but at AFOP Health & Safety, we’re concerned that such a shift will occur – or even is already occurring – without proper attention being paid to the many hazards present in hemp and marijuana fields.  Proper protective equipment to guard against pesticides, masks or respirators to keep from breathing in mold or allergens, as well as the same basic procedures (water rest shade) to prevent heat stress may all be in order – and much more.

Unfortunately, there are no federal or state safety standards specific to the sensitizers found in marijuana or hemp plants, but OSHA’s General Duty Clause applies:

 “Employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

OSHA General Duty Clause – Section 5 (a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Regardless of the plant being harvested, agriculture is a dangerous occupation and should always be approached with a mitigation plan that addresses every potential hazard.  Because all farmworkers deserve decent pay AND always their health & safety, too. 

Further resources:

VICE article
Oregon Workers
New Frontier Data
Marijuana workers Wage & Hour
Issues to Consider
Hemp and the Agricultural Industry
Industrial Hemp Production
Full Report – Guide to Worker Safety & Health in the Marijuana Industry