Risky Business

Rigorous employee training is essential for extraction companies working with C02, butane

by Bart Schaneman

Butane and CO2 cannabis extraction equipment come with built-in hazards.

Butane can easily catch on fire or explode. CO2 machines operate at high pressures, and inhaling the gas can kill you. For those and other reasons, extraction lab operators must make safety a top priority when training and supervising employees to prevent serious accidents from happening.

The training also can keep a company from landing in legal hot water. Workers at separate marijuana businesses in New Mexico and Oregon were burned after butane extraction equipment used to make hash oil exploded – and the companies were penalized. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the New Mexico firm $13,500 last year, while the owners of the Oregon firm were indicted in May by a county circuit court on charges of felony assault and misdemeanor reckless endangerment.

Certain topics must be stressed when training employees:

  • Ventilation
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Understanding the equipment
  • Routine maintenance
  • Keeping calm if something goes wrong

“Safety is obviously the No. 1 thing,” said Tony Tills, director of operations for Denver-based Organa Labs, where new employees undergo weeks of training. “The worst thing is when something does happen and people aren’t prepared.”

Why So Dangerous?

Extraction is a potentially lethal process for a number of reasons.

Butane extraction involves soaking raw marijuana – flower or trim – in butane to extract the THC. Without proper ventilation, a room can fill with gas, and a spark can ignite a fireball. Propane can be used in a similar fashion, with much the same risks.

Supercritical CO2 extraction sidesteps the flammable danger of hydrocarbon extraction using butane or propane, but the gas can still be deadly.

The process uses a combination of high temperature and pressure to turn CO2 into a liquid that acts as a solvent. The solvent then passes through finely ground raw marijuana in an extraction reactor column. Once the solvent has worked to isolate the desired compounds – cannabinoids and terpenes – a change in temperature and pressure returns the CO2 to gas. The released gas leaves behind resin and oil that can be incorporated into infused products.

Some companies also use ethanol for extraction, which is a faster process than CO2 but doesn’t separate the compounds as cleanly.

Ventilation is Key

When working with a potentially deadly gas, a trainee needs to be aware that airflow is crucial to safety.

Scott Leshman, the owner of two Detroit businesses – Cannabinoid Creations, a hemp-derived CBD company, as well as a medical marijuana firm, Special FX Labs – began using CO2 extraction in 2006.

He emphasized the importance of ventilation with CO2. His facility, in fact, has enough “negative” airflow during the winter that snow has been known to blow in through an open door.

Matthew Ellis, owner and designer of the equipment at ExtractionTek Solutions in Englewood, Colorado, performs the training firsthand when someone buys his company’s 30-liter butane or propane extraction equipment.

“I wouldn’t allow someone to buy it without training,” he said.

A key training principle for butane and propane extraction is storing the gas in a ventilated area.

“Do your best to never store gas in your facility if you’re not using it,” Ellis said.

The Importance of SOPs

Organa Labs uses CO2 for its extraction. The company’s training regimen takes about a month, depending on the new hire’s level of expertise. It’s broken down into steps:

  • Reading over the standard operating procedures (SOPs)
  • Observing a trainer use the equipment
  • Performing the procedure while a trainer is watching
  • Performing the procedure solo, without help from a trainer
  • Auditing a new hire’s performance

Once trained, employees are shown the proper way to improve the SOPs as they learn the ins and outs and find better ways to extract.

“We have an SOP for our SOPs,” Tills said. “The most important thing when making changes is implementing the standardization and sustainability that help bring that training not only to another level, but to ensure that it’s going to occur long term.”

Understand the Equipment

Most marijuana extraction firms rely on the manufacturer that has sold the equipment to help train their extractors.

Ellis, for example, doesn’t teach a trainee how to make hash oil. Instead, he trains that person about how the equipment works and how to perform maintenance.

He explains to trainees why each piece of the machine functions as it does so they understand “this isn’t a nuclear weapon. If there is an event, it’s more of a flash, unless there’s an open fuel source, and we try not to give them an open fuel source.”

Jeff Wilhoit – director of extracts at Legion of Bloom, a California medical marijuana company with operations across the state – lets the manufacturer lead the training.

“That training could come from the employer,” he said. “But it’s much better, in my opinion, to have the manufacturer train you on how to run their machine to their specifications.”

Legion of Bloom buys its C02 extraction equipment from Seattle-based Eden Labs. When someone new joins his team, Wilhoit sends that person to the manufacturer to become certified and learn how to use the equipment firsthand.

“You follow what the extraction company tells you,” Wilhoit said.

Cleanliness and Maintenance

Wilhoit’s team keeps a maintenance log that employees review to ensure the proper upkeep has been completed, shift by shift.

“It is the most important part of safety in the lab,” he said.

The first order of business for each shift is to check the log.

Some gaskets on the extraction machine need to be replaced every day, as often as every other run.

“We found that if we replace the seals on the machine every two cycles we would never have a seal fail,” Wilhoit said.

Because CO2 requires high pressure, making sure the gaskets are changed on time is one of his team’s biggest issues.

When a gasket blows, it floods the area with CO2. While Legion of Bloom has ventilation to handle the gas, employees must still shut down the machine and push back their production schedule if this situation materializes.

That issue isn’t as likely to happen if the team is using and checking the maintenance log.

His extractors are trained to diagnose where the leak has occurred in the machine, shut it down in a way that will minimize the loss of CO2 and find the best way to reroute that gas back into the cylinder or vent it outside.

“Maintenance is a huge thing,” Leshman in Michigan said. Without proper maintenance, pumps die, hoses get filled with oil or oil gets mixed in with the gas.

His team is taught how to take the machinery apart and reassemble it. The employees also perform maintenance after each run to head off potential problems.

ExtractionTek’s Ellis agrees with that approach. After running three or four pounds of propane or butane gas through the lines at the end of the day to clean them out, he suggests the extractor take apart the pieces and lay them out in an organized fashion. That’s how the pieces should sit overnight. When the morning crew comes in, they reassemble everything and make sure it fits together properly.

“The biggest thing is just understanding the functionality,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s not rocket science.”