A Holyoke marijuana production facility was already under investigation by Massachusetts marijuana regulators over safety concerns when a 27-year-old worker there collapsed and died on the job in January, state officials said Friday.
Lorna McMurrey collapsed on Jan. 7 while filling pre-rolled joints with ground cannabis flower at a cultivation and processing center in Holyoke owned by Trulieve, according to officials and her family, after telling coworkers she couldn’t breathe. McMurrey died several days later at a nearby hospital.
Union organizers and employees in the burgeoning cannabis sector have long charged that Massachusetts marijuana regulations are short on worker protections, even as they impose strict controls on the handling of cannabis plants and products.
That criticism is now intensifying, as those who knew McMurrey demand answers about whether Trulieve — and the state regulators who received earlier complaints about the Holyoke facility — bear any responsibility for her death.
Federal workplace safety regulators in June attributed the death to “occupational asthma due to exposure to ground cannabis” dust and said other workers at the Holyoke facility faced the same conditions. But the investigation by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not find that Trulieve had failed to protect its employees. The agency fined the company $32,200 for failing to train workers about the danger and not keeping records of hazardous materials at the production center.
One of the country’s largest marijuana operators, Trulieve, is based in Florida, where it has been embroiled in an unrelated bribery scandal. The company is contesting OSHA’s findings in the still-open Holyoke case, and a spokesman said that the agency verified dust levels at the facility were “well below acceptable ranges.”
Now the state has revealed that Trulieve’s Holyoke operation was under official scrutiny for potential safety problems even before McMurrey’s death.
A spokeswoman for the state Cannabis Control Commission said Friday that the agency had launched an investigation of the facility in the fall of 2021 after receiving complaints from workers, and that the investigation into those complaints and the January death is ongoing.
“The commission takes the safety and welfare of [marijuana workers], patients, and consumers seriously, and has been and will continue to coordinate with public health officials to understand any contributing circumstances,” she wrote.
The statement came a day after the commission’s new chair, Shannon O’Brien, and commissioner Bruce Stebbins, who was appointed in December 2020, told reporters that they did not hear about McMurrey’s death until September, when local activist Mike Crawford publicized OSHA’s findings.
That prompted Trulieve to insist it had notified the state cannabis commission within 24 hours of the January incident, as required by the agency’s regulations, and sent additional follow-up notifications when OSHA inspectors visited the Holyoke facility.
The commission spokeswoman said Friday the company told the state agency about McMurrey’s death several days afterward, on Jan. 10. But staffers did not brief the agency’s five appointed commissioners, which she called a “customary” practice meant to ensure investigations remain independent until the commissioners vote on whether to accept their conclusions and issue any sanctions.
“The first I heard of this is when I read it in the paper,” O’Brien said Thursday. “I think that’s an issue commissioners are speaking to staff about.”
It’s unclear why the commission’s investigation has taken more than nine months; O’Brien on Thursday did not directly answer questions about when it would be complete, saying only that the probe was “happening right now” and that the agency has a responsibility “to make sure that working conditions are well-maintained and are safe.”
Dave Bruneau, McMurrey’s stepfather, said McMurrey asked him to bring her respirators from his job as a mechanic several weeks before she died.
“She said the air was full of dust,” Bruneau said in an interview. “You could see it and it would stick to your skin and stuff. I have COPD myself after working [in dusty environments] for 30-something years, and I know what exposure’s like. You don’t want to be sucking particles and stuff into your lungs. I was really concerned.”
Danny Carson, a former supervisor at the Holyoke plant who hired McMurrey the summer before her death, said Trulieve only provided paper, medical-type masks to workers. He said the multi-state pot conglomerate failed to properly train workers and created what he called a culture of silence in which employees were afraid to speak up about safety concerns. He said he quit in August 2021.
Trulieve employees “know that asking to take five minutes to step out and get fresh air could mean you get fired, or screamed at, or made to feel bad, as if you’re letting the team down,” Carson said.
The company and commission regulators declined to comment on any specific details of the incident, citing the open investigations. A spokesman for the Hampden County District Attorney said McMurrey’s death was not the subject of a criminal probe.
Bruneau said McMurrey, at first, was excited to work in the cannabis industry, which offered both steady employment and the chance to meet like-minded colleagues.
“My heart fell into my shoes when the nurse at the hospital told me she was brain-dead from a lack of oxygen,” an emotional Bruneau said. “I want people to know what happened to her, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”