Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 2, 2018.

NFPA 420?

The case for a new standard devoted to the cannabis industry


While a cannabis-specific chapter in NFPA 1, fire code, is a good start, some are calling for more.

Brian Lukus, an engineer with the Denver Fire Department, was one of several experts who served on the NFPA task group that developed the code’s new marijuana chapter. The project began after Lukus submitted a request to the Standards Council in 2015 for NFPA to develop a new standard on marijuana facilities. The council decided, at least initially, that a chapter in NFPA 1 would suffice.

While Lukus is happy that the chapter provides fire departments and authorities having jurisdiction with guidelines for the cannabis industry, he also believes it's "too general” to cover the myriad details he’s seen emerge over the last four years in Denver. He intends to resubmit his request for NFPA to create a standalone marijuana standard.

“There are a lot of industry-specific things that are unique, and right now there is [no guidance],” Lukus told me. “There is a lot of nitty-gritty stuff, and with some of it guidance might exist, but it’s buried in five different codes. The operators of this industry don’t sit around and read codes all day, so it would be nice to have it all in a single document.”

Over two days in Denver, both Lukus and Mark Rudolph, an inspector with the DFD, peppered me with examples of issues unique to the cannabis industry that don’t fit neatly into any code, from ventilation of pesticides in CO2-enriched rooms—“nobody wants to ventilate a room that is CO2 enriched, but at the same time you have these chemicals in there, but there is no guidance on that,” Lukus said—to procedures for what to do with spent plant material soaked in alcohol or butane. Guidance could also be provided on common post-processing techniques, they said, including one referred to as winterizing, where manufacturers add alcohol to marijuana concentrates, then freeze it so the fats rise to the top, whereupon the remaining alcohol is burned off. Other concerns include the lack of training for extraction workers and the absence of rules on how marijuana facilities handle flammable liquids.

“You have to fill these solvent tanks for the extractors, but there is no guidance on how to do that safely,” Lukus told me. “The closest thing we can find is NFPA 58, Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code, but it says specifically it is not to be used for processing applications. Some manufacturers take big tanks from the outside and bring them inside to fill. Some do the opposite. Some pipe it in from the outside.”

When it comes to training employees on how to use these machines, Lukus said, “there is literally no training. If you wanted, you could go be an extraction technician tomorrow.” Denver requires operators within city limits to take a course that teaches them to fill a propane tank, but Lukus admits “the process of filling a propane tank and working an extractor are very different.” One reason the city doesn’t mandate training on the extraction process itself is that no standardized method currently exists for conducting the process. He showed me a grainy video on his phone of an extractor blowing up and spewing gas because the worker had not used a torque wrench to properly tighten the assembly, which failed as the pressure increased.

“Sprinkler installers always use a torque wrench to properly calibrate how tight a sprinkler head is,” Lukus said. “That’s how they’re trained to do it. That’s not the case in the marijuana industry.”

Kristin Bigda, an engineer at NFPA and the staff liaison to NFPA 1, told me she had heard these concerns from Lukus and others during the development of Chapter 38, but committee members felt that that level of detail—training, pesticides, etc.—went beyond the fire protection scope of NFPA 1.

“In that case, we have to start asking whether those issues warrant their own project,” Bigda said of the idea for a cannabis standard. “We could easily put together a committee of 30 people for that, and it might provide some of the detail Brian is looking for. I’m curious if there is support for it. If the industry truly wants to make this better, hopefully we will hear from them.”

To submit a public input for the next edition of NFPA 1, visit the document information webpage.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Jesse Roman