New Mexico doubles workplace safety staff as cannabis industry launches

Apr. 1—In the past seven years, the state's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau has conducted just eight on-site inspections of medical cannabis facilities.

But with sales of recreational cannabis starting Friday, more cannabis production, manufacturing and retail facilities are set to develop and expand — and so will the number of Occupational Health and Safety Bureau on-site inspections.

On Wednesday, the state Environment Department, which oversees OHSB, announced the number of employees in that bureau has grown from 28 to 64.

Part of that growth is in preparation for the rollout of the new cannabis companies. However, the 19 staff members who eventually will work as inspectors will not all focus on cannabis, OHSB Chief Bob Genoway said Wednesday.

Some will be tasked with inspections in the oil and gas and construction industries, among other places, he said.

But, Genoway added: "Moving forward we anticipate doing a significantly larger number of inspections [in the cannabis field]. It's hard to give a number."

He said it's difficult to say at this early stage how many of those inspectors might be devoted to cannabis businesses.

"At some point, it may be we have a quarter of our inspectors dedicated to the cannabis industry, but it's hard for me to see that now," Genoway said.

His agency still has three openings for inspectors.

"We could always use more," Genoway said.

For all the potential benefits — economic growth, job creation — supporters of legalized cannabis say will come with the new industry, so might workforce safety hazards and, perhaps, violations.

In the cultivation phase, exposure to carbon dioxide, cleaning materials and pesticides are risks. Poor indoor air quality at some facilities can also be problematic.

All the other fields associated with the business — agriculture, distribution, lab testing and sales, to name a few — come with on-site dangers as well.

Genoway cited the use of flammable liquids in the cannabis extraction process as being dangerous and leading to fires.

Genoway said not all the new hires, who were brought aboard in the past four months, are inspectors.

Among the other new jobs filled within the agency are a whistleblower investigator, two compliance assistance specialists and staff members assigned to outreach activities.

Genoway said the extra workers are necessary because "there are still far too many injuries, illnesses and unfortunately deaths occurring among the New Mexico workforce."

The additional employees can help "reduce those numbers," he said.

He said his bureau gets 400 to 500 complaints covering an array of industries every year. About half those come from former or current employees, family members of employees and union representatives, Genoway said.

Each inspector conducts an average of 50 inspections a year, he said. While most are based on referrals or complaints, some are random visits.

Although he did not have a list of medical cannabis violation reports on hand, Genoway said he recalled "several cases where we have inspected and issued citations. I can think of two cases involving accidents where we issued fines" in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

He said he expects the cannabis manufacturing field to bring about the highest number of complaints and inspections.

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email he welcomes the news of more hires. He said oversight of the new industry has to involve multiple state agencies, including Genoway's bureau, to ensure safety.

"I'm grateful to hear that the state is adding workers and resources in several places to ensure adult use cannabis launches with stable footing," Lewinger said.