Tips for keeping marijuana extraction lab workers safe

cannabis extraction safety, Tips for keeping marijuana extraction lab workers safe

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Linn Havelick is the founder at HAL Extraction Technologies in Golden, Colorado.)

When I was preparing to retire from my career as an industrial hygienist – an “environmental health and safety guy” – in 2014 at the Colorado School of Mines, I got yet another call from a fire marshal about a blaze caused by unsafe marijuana extraction.

Though my experience with cannabis was both casual and 30 years out of date, I knew that I had valuable experience from my career that could save thousands of lives in this new industry.

My advice for both the cannabis space and traditional industries is the same:

  • Be prepared for more safety codes and regulations, and look to more established industries for insight on what’s ahead for the cannabis industry.
  • Participate in setting standards and developing codes. Your knowledge is needed.
  • Network and collaborate across many industries to solve the challenges facing the legal cannabis industry as it scales and matures. Both the cannabis and traditional industries can learn from each other.

More codes coming

The marijuana industry still has a long way to go with regards to codes, standards and regulations for manufacturing compared to other consumable products.

As the industry scales beyond $20 billion, a change of mindset will be needed to embrace safety standards to protect both employees and consumers.

While there is often resistance to adopting new standards, they will be developed and adopted whether we like it or not.

The only question is whether industry participants will embrace and develop these codes with regulators or continue to fight a losing battle.

A century ago, there was a group of forward-thinking industry experts who came together to set the North American standard for the 120-volt duplex outlet box that you use in your home today.

The codes created by them still enable safe outlets that work with anything plugged into them today.

The cannabis industry is where the electrical industry was 100 years ago. If you want to lead in the cannabis sector, you must use your expertise to help develop these needed standards.

Codes and standards committees are working on standards for extraction equipment, fire safety, processing, security and international applications, and more right now. If you are not participating, you will be left behind.

Maybe you are building a facility and a code enforcement official or fire marshal tells you that some new standard now applies to the equipment you are installing.

Before you argue and claim that it’s too expensive or difficult, ask yourself:

  • Could these new standards make your equipment safer and more productive?
  • Will they reduce requirements for other equipment?
  • Will employee turnover and insurance costs decline with a safer working environment?

I spent most of my career trying to help make people safe, whether at work or by cleaning up hazardous wastes.

Now, I am honored to be able to say that working with the cannabis industry has helped me save more lives and prevent more injuries than I did in the rest of my career put together.

The industry is just getting started, as are the codes needed to continue ensuring employee safety.

Another fire in a nascent industry

After the launch of recreational use in Colorado in 2014, the state saw 40 firefighter responses to fires caused by the “open blasting” method of extracting butane hash oil.

Seeing the trends in California, Oregon and around the world, I knew thousands of lives would be at risk if the effective but dangerous open-lasting method – often using butane camping fuel and turkey basters full of flower – did not adopt the standards of legal industrial processes.

Such practices would never live up to fire codes or ensure employee safety in a legitimate multibillion-dollar legal industry. They were a relic of an industry forced to operate in the shadows.

It was a tremendous challenge for the state of Colorado and the industry to figure out how to make these systems work and to introduce the extraction process into existing building and fire codes.

New rules and many new approaches were tried, but it quickly became apparent that existing equipment and rules did not solve the challenges faced by operators in the cannabis industry.

Networking across industries

At the time, no industry models existed for oil extraction. We had to develop the technology and standards from the ground up.

Developing these new solutions required the research and input of engineers from robotics, mining and metallurgy industries, among others.

Very early on, I recruited the help of the world leaders in the development of industry standards at Underwriters Laboratories.

Without this expertise, the oil extraction industry could not have started moving into the mainstream.

Though the cannabis industry is rapidly scaling and professionalizing, there is still much to learn from more traditional industries.

The cannabis industry needs to look to traditional industry to fully build out its supply chain and support industry growth from $20 billion to $50 billion or more.

In a twist where the student becomes the teacher, we now have non-cannabis industries, such as printing, biofuels and innovative food companies, using cannabis products to solve their own employee safety challenges.

Linn Havelick is the Founder at HAL Extraction Technologies in Golden, Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected].

The previous installment of this series is available here.

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