There are now more than 428,000 workers in the U.S. cannabis industry, and that number is only increasing as cannabis legalization proliferates across the country. In many cannabis cultivation jobs — like other agricultural vocations — workers tend to put in long hours, often doing physically strenuous and repetitive work. They are protected, however, because cannabis employers must meet the same safety standards as other agricultural employers. It’s important for cannabis leaders to understand how complying with these standards can reduce the risk of workers’ compensation claims.
Cannabis companies face unique challenges related to workers’ comp because the industry is still federally illegal and fairly new in terms of job creation. As cannabis moves further into the mainstream, companies need to pay attention to the wide sphere of operations that fall under the workers’ compensation umbrella and how potential claims can impact their bottom line. The good news is that while cannabis operators face some risk of workers’ comp claims, cannabis environments are generally well-regulated and safe places to work.
Similar Level of Risk
High-THC cannabis and industrial hemp environments pose similar workplace risks to other agricultural settings, and this is a primary reason why cannabis operators use the same workers’ compensation codes as other agricultural employers.
An apt analogy is that of wine production during harvest or crush: Whether harvesting and crushing grapes by hand or machine, production workers operate with some element of risk. Similarly, cannabis or hemp plants are cut, and buds are collected either by hand or machine. And like workers in the wine industry, cannabis employees operate with some level of risk inherent to the production process. Slipping, falling, exposure to mold, pesticides and other toxins, interacting with water and electricity, and repetitive motion injuries are potential risk factors throughout all of agriculture.
Even though cannabis businesses are held to the same safety standards as other agricultural employers, they still face double standards that create higher costs of doing business. Elevated taxes, more intensive labor laws and higher insurance rates (including workers’ compensation) are just some of the issues business owners battle because cannabis is still considered an illicit substance at the federal level.
Additionally, federal illegality perpetuates social stigmas surrounding employment opportunities and often impedes companies’ ability to attract and hire top candidates.
While there are abundant jobs available, qualified candidates from non-cannabis fields often are reluctant to apply. This reluctance impacts positions at all levels, from entry to senior-level roles in both plant-touching and non-plant-touching positions.
What Cannabis Employers Can Do
Employers can take several actions to improve their operations and clarify there is no inherently increased risk to joining the industry.
– Clearly communicate that cannabis is a safe industry filled with a wide variety of attractive, well-paying jobs.
– No matter what role you’re hiring for, make sure you accurately classify employees. Misclassification can carry heavy fines and legal fees.
– Ensure employees are well-trained. Like any other physical job, cannabis cultivation and processing positions require proper training to reduce safety-related injuries. Utilize a risk and safety expert to establish standard operating procedures, clear policies and workers’ comp and safety protocols.
– From an internal administrative standpoint, be aware that if an employee expresses a concern, you need to address it immediately. One case can lead to multiple cases; if one person starts a complaint process, other workers experiencing similar problems might come forward.
Federal Legalization on the Horizon
Currently, workers’ compensation coverage varies state by state. But once the inevitable happens and cannabis is legalized at the federal level, states — and therefore cannabis businesses — will be able to provide uniform workers’ comp insurance coverage.
Until then, cannabis employers need to understand the regulations of each state where they operate. Maintaining a safe and compliant workplace is the best defense against workers’ compensation claims and is key to protecting employees, the plants and the company.
Joe Madigan is CEO of Higher Growth Search, a recruiting and staffing partner to licensed cannabis companies. He has more than 20 years of expertise in staffing and recruiting and maintains an extensive client and candidate network that fosters strong, collaborative business relationships.