By Omar Sacirbey
Marijuana extractors in particular as well as cultivators and retailers across the nation can anticipate new fire safety guidelines in the months ahead designed to head off potentially deadly blazes and explosions at cannabis businesses.
A 10-member committee of fire code enforcers, equipment manufacturers and professionals who work in extraction facilities have drafted a proposed marijuana chapter for the Fire Code of the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops safety codes and standards. Panel members hope it will give extractors and other cannabis industry businesses guidelines on how to fireproof their work environments and safely operate complicated machinery.
The proposed chapter comes amid a rash of extraction explosions this year, mostly in illegal home laboratories but also at some licensed companies. It covers everything from ventilation and exhaust to the use of different solvents as well as staffing and training. Municipalities and states across the nation ultimately could incorporate it into their own fire codes.
The 10-member NFPA panel approved a draft chapter on cannabis industry fire safety in October and will take a second vote in December. Assuming it passes, the new draft chapter will be made available to the public on Jan. 16, 2017. Changes can be submitted as late as June because the draft chapter is not expected to be finalized until August.
The bottom line, however, is that the 2018 edition of the NFPA Fire Code will have a chapter on marijuana.
“I’m pretty confident that some form of it will be in the 2018 edition of the Fire Code,” said Kristin Bigda, the NFPA’s principal fire protection engineer and a member of the committee that drafted the cannabis fire safety chapter.
Marijuana extraction, in particular, can be a hazardous profession, one that involves dangerous chemicals and complicated equipment. Add to that a dearth of experience, a lack of training and an excess of confidence, and the results can be catastrophic.
On Oct. 19, for example, two workers at Higher Level Concentrates in Astoria, Oregon, were burned after an explosion and fire that occurred while they were reportedly trying to make butane hash oil and had to be rushed to a local hospital.
Two days before that, a part-time trimmer with Mt. Baker Gardens in Washington State was severely burned after trying to extract hash oil at his home in Bellingham.
Cannabis industry and fire safety officials say such explosions result from a lack of education and training about the hazards of extraction.
New fire guidelines
The proposed cannabis chapter includes guidelines for cultivators and retailers but mostly focuses on extractors, according to the NFPA’s Bigda.
“That’s where some of the unique hazards occur, in these facilities,” Bigda said. “The committee tried to write requirements based on what makes these facilities unique.”
There are sections pertaining to the different solvents that are used, staffing and training, signage, documentation for equipment that doesn’t have a listing and how code officials can identify the equipment they’re inspecting.
The chapter also addresses fumigation and pesticide application for growers, as well as egress, since many retailers, growers and extractors secure their facilities to thwart intruders. The problem is that many lock up in a way that could trap workers inside if there were a fire, Bigda said.
The cannabis chapter also contains passages on how to handle ventilation and exhaust, depending on the solvents being used, as well as information on standby power systems for lighting, ventilation and smoke and gas detection.
While the proposed chapter has been welcomed by many cannabis industry officials, both for its safety improvements and the legitimacy that comes with being recognized by a national fire safety organization, they hope it’s only a beginning.
“It’s a good start, but it certainly doesn’t address all the concerns. It addresses some of the minimum facility requirements – that’s what it’s going for. It doesn’t address training, equipment design,” said Chris Witherell, a founding partner of Pressure Safety Inspectors, an engineering firm in Castle Rock, Colorado, that provides such services as inspections to infused products companies.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” he added.
Common safety issues of extraction
In the cannabis industry, especially the extraction side, fire hazards are more the rule than the exception, fire safety experts said.
“The vast majority of them (extraction facilities) have problems,” Witherell said. “In fact, when we go out and do our initial inspection, no one passes the first go-around. In some cases, it could be a minor thing. But in a lot of cases, it’s kind of major things.”
One of the biggest issues is a lack of education and training. Extraction involves dangerous gases passing through complicated equipment, but the people who perform the operation usually aren’t properly trained in the process or are cavalier about it.
“There’s a lack of respect for the solvent that they’re using, especially with the butane and propane guys,” Witherell said. “This has grown out of an industry that didn’t used to be legal.”
There’s also a lack of understanding of the potential hazards, Witherell said.
“People have their own ways of doing things, and they did them for a number of years, and they didn’t die or get burned and never had an accident,” he said. “But just because you did it for 10 years without getting into an accident doesn’t mean that you won’t.”
Another common problem is leakage of gases used in extraction: Butane and propane can be combustible; CO2 leaks can result in asphyxiation.
“Some people would use closed-loop systems, but when the air in the extraction room would be tested, readings showed there were high levels of dangerous gases used in extraction in the air,” said Brian Lukus, fire protection engineer with the Denver Fire Department.
While CO2 asphyxiation hasn’t happened in the cannabis industry, as far as Lukus knows, it has happened in other business sectors such as restaurants, he said.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]