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The Cannabis Control Commission Just Redefined "Work-Related Illness" For Agent COVID-19 Cases

On May 7, 2020, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) began requiring licensees to submit an Agent COVID-19 Report Form within 24 hours after becoming aware of "any instance of an employee work-related illness resulting in a confirmed COVID-19 (Coronavirus) case." The term "work-related illness" doesn't appear in the state's cannabis regulations, but under OSHA an illness is work-related "if an event or exposure in the work environment either caused or contributed to the resulting condition or significantly aggravated a pre-existing... illness." (OSHA Standard No. 1904.5) (emphasis supplied). Likewise, the term "work-related disease" is defined in Massachusetts Department of Public Health Regulations as a "disease or condition which is believed to be caused or aggravated by conditions in the individual's workplace." (105 CMR 300.020) (emphasis supplied). In other words, for an illness to be "work-related" under state or federal safety regulations, the workplace must cause or contribute to it. I wrote a blog summarizing OSHA Guidance on this topic in May of 2020 that you can find here.

The CCC just redefined what "work-related illness" means.

On January 19, 2021, the CCC published a bulletin on Agent COVID-19 reporting requirements, stating that it "has learned that licensees are unclear about the meaning of 'employee work-related illness' for purposes of reporting agents who have tested positive for COVID-19. Licensees are advised that the term 'work-related illness' means an illness that affects an employee or workplace, or that poses a risk of transmission between employees or within the workplace. The phrase 'work-related illness' does not mean 'work-caused illness.'" (emphasis supplied). For the CCC to characterize licensees who have been interpreting the term "work-related illness" consistent with longstanding state and federal safety regulations as being unclear about the meaning of the term is unfair. The more likely explanation is that CCC staff didn't sufficiently consider what the term "work-related illness" means when they drafted the Agent COVID-19 Report Form. If the CCC intended from the outset to require licensees to report any COVID-19 illness discovered in the workplace, regardless of whether the illness was "work-related" (as that term is universally understood in the workplace safety industry), they could and should have just said so. And if the CCC now intends to clarify COVID-19 reporting requirements, they should have simply changed the Agent COVID-19 Report Form by replacing "work-related illness" with "illness discovered in the workplace." They haven't. If this seems like an unfairly picky criticism, keep in mind that the state's cannabis regulations now stretch into the hundreds of pages and licensees are expected to comply with all of them, as well as with myriad other directives like the one concerning Agent COVID-19 reporting "to the letter." The consequences for failing to do so can be severe. Challenging the CCC's misuse of a well-established, commonly understood safety industry term in a way that is likely to confuse licensees should be expected.

At any rate, licensees should now be aware of how the CCC has redefined "work-related illness" for Agent COVID-19 reporting purposes. Hopefully, licensees who relied upon industry standard definitions until now will not be unfairly penalized for doing so.

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