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Stirring the Pot - Mitigating Hazards in Marijuana Facilities

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Stirring the Pot - Mitigating Hazards in Marijuana Facilities

With the recent legalization of marijuana in Canada, the marijuana industry is expanding more rapidly than the research into hazard and risk mitigation. The hazards associated with grow, extraction and dispensary facilities are not well understood by proprietors, the design community and enforcement authorities (typically the local fire department), posing a steep learning curve and potential accidents that can be avoided. This article summarizes the major safety and security hazards associated with these facilities and ways that consultants, like JENSEN HUGHES, can help develop a safer marijuana industry.

JENSEN HUGHES has been involved with investigating numerous marijuana-related fires and explosions that we can use as lessons of what not to do.

Security Considerations

From recent experience in other countries, a newly-legalized industry faces intense competition, not just from other new growers, but experienced, adjacent industries such as beverage and food manufacturers. On a much smaller scale, there are new growers simply trying to knock off the competition. 

Security concerns can also spill over into life safety. Security tends to be very tight in all facilities, and it isn’t unusual for smaller operations to opt for inexpensive options such as hasps and locks, deadbolts, thumb-turns and other hardware that is expressly forbidden by life safety codes. If a facility has an incident and the security system is designed to keep the product in, but isn’t prepared to evacuate people safely, this could be catastrophic. A cannabis facility should develop a security plan that addresses both perspectives.

Grow & Extraction

Facilities for growing marijuana and THC extraction have unique hazards that can affect fire, employee and product safety.

Electrical Equipment. Electrical equipment tends to be the most significant fire ignition hazard in grow operations due to the extensive application of high current-draw appliances to boost plant yields. Most growers opt for indoor growing to boost productivity which drives growers to implement High Intensity Discharge lights and hydroponic farming practices, both of which require a large number of ballasts, pumps, and associated electrical equipment to operate. Larger operations may have added complexities such as sophisticated climate control, air scrubbers, and CO2 generation systems.

Existing building electrical systems designed for lower intensity uses can be overwhelmed with these demanding power loads if they are not appropriately upgraded. Typical electrical problems are related to non-compliant installations made by amateur “electricians”, including overloaded electrical panels/circuits, excessive reliance on relocatable power taps, and exposure of electrical components to increased temperatures and humidity levels. Appropriate facility electrical design and evaluation of existing facilities are imperative.

To prevent identification by authorities, and as cost savings measure, many smaller illicit grow operations utilize electrical bypasses whereby power is drawn from the building supply conductors prior to the electrical meter/panel. Such connections are typically made while the conductors are energized. The techniques used to ‘tap’ the supply line can result in failures at the electrical connection and, more importantly, can pose a significant hazard to first responders due to the presence of energized circuits downstream of an isolated main electrical panel.

Open Flame Sources. Another ignition hazard unique to marijuana manufacturing facilities are the potential for open flame operations. The THC extraction process is a closed operation by design, to take advantage of solvent recovery using butane or isopropyl alcohol.  While commercial THC extraction units are available, few are tested or listed with accredited testing agencies. Some owners, in a rush to get in business and start making money, may simply build their own extraction equipment with components sourced from the local hardware store or the internet, which can pose significant fire and explosion hazards due to the ignition of fugitive ignitable vapours.

High Fuel Content Plastics. If an electrical device fails in an indoor growing room, there is a significant potential for a fire to ignite and spread throughout the entire room. Plastic sheeting if often used to cover wall and ceiling surfaces to prevent moisture damage, which when ignited can readily spread a fire. Hydroponics operations typically require large quantities of plastic bins to house the plants which, in conjunction with combustible working surfaces and storage vessels that are often made of plastics, the fuel load may be closer to a storage warehouse holding Group A Plastics than a more traditional agricultural operation.

Structural/Mould: Modifications to a building to permit hydroponic plumbing, ventilation, and exhaust venting can cause damage to a building structure and can also facilitate smoke and fire spread within a building. Similarly, without appropriate preventative measures in place, the ideal grow environment correlates with elevated humidity levels which can infiltrate the building structure promote the growth of mould.

Conclusion

The rapid growth and unique challenges of the marijuana industry are blurring the line between agricultural and industrial facilities. Proactively addressing the evolving fire & life safety concerns will be necessary to mitigate the constantly varying hazards as the industry advances.

For more information about how JENSEN HUGHES can help your cannabis business, please visit https://www.jensenhughes.com/resources/cannabis/