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Maine Medical Marijuana Dispensary Fined for Workplace Violations
04/04/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Maine's largest medical marijuana dispensary operator has agreed to pay a $14,000 fine and make workplace improvements, after an inspection by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found half a dozen serious violations at an indoor grow facility in Auburn. As Susan Sharon reports, the citations come on the heels of a consent agreement with the state over pesticide use, and in the midst of an employee unionizing effort.

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OSHA's area director William Coffin says his agency's investigation was prompted by a complaint from an employee at the Wellness Connection of Maine. He says inspectors found six serious violations - violations considered likely to cause injury - at the cultivation facility.

They include lack of proper machinery guarding and failure to address workplace hazards that could require the use of personal protective equipment. "That could mean eye protection, head protection, gloves, respirators. It could mean anything," Coffin says.

For example, the company was cited for not supplying appropriate eye protection when employees were working with bleach, or eye wash stations in the event of an emergency. Several employees have expressed concern about the lack of respirators in the illegal application of pesticides by Wellness Connection.

That practice was highlighted in a consent agreement reached last month between Wellness Connection and the state after more than 20 violations of medical marijuana regulations were uncovered in a month-long investigation. The company has pledged to stop using pesticides on its plants. But several workers are currently out sick with what they say are health problems caused by the over-exposure to mold.

"There are four other employees other than myself that are out due to lung issues or breathing issues due to the mold that we had there. We had it growing on the walls. I have photos of it,' says one woman, who asked not to be identified.

The woman says she was not provided with a respirator or, until recently, gloves to do her job. Nor was Adrian Cole, an employee who helped stage a walkout of the Auburn cultivation facility in late February because of his concerns about mold and pesticide use. Cole says he quit his job a week ago because of ongoing conflicts with management.

"We were being told to do things like spray without any protective gear things that said very clearly 'Do not inhale.' We have horrible working conditions," Cole says.

William Coffin of OSHA says his investigators did not find anything that would mandate the use of respirators at the grow site. But they did cite Wellness Connection for failing to develop a respiratory protection program for employees who want to use protective equipment. And Coffin says the company has agreed to take additional voluntary safeguards.

"They're going to go to the full medical qualification. They're going to go to pulmonary function tests. They're going to go to fit testing. They're doing everything just as if they were requring it, even though they're not," Coffin says.

With about 40 employees, Wellness Connection of Maine operates half the state's dispensaries at four locations around the state, and one indoor cultivation site. Workers are currently trying to convince their employer to voluntarily recognize the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents medical marijuana workers in other states. They say more than half the Wellness staff supports the organizing effort.

But, so far, management has refused to grant them the ability to collectively bargain. In a show of support for workers, members of the AFL-CIO and other labor leaders have arranged a leaflet drop and news conference on their behalf this weekend.

Meanwhile, Becky DeKeuster, the executive clinical director for Wellness Connection, says she welcomes the OSHA findings. "That's what OSHA's for, is helping us create a safe environment, so we were very pleased to work with them," she says.

OSHA originally proposed a fine of more than $19,000 for the safety violations it found. But William Coffin says Wellness Connection has abated nearly all oof them, and the fine has been reduced by several thousand dollars.


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