A 27-year-old woman collapsed on the job at a cannabis processing facility in Holyoke in January, dying several days later — a fact that didn’t become widely known for eight months — and now nine months after Lorna McMurrey’s death an investigation by the state’s cannabis regulators is still incomplete.
That raises the issue of worker safety at the plant run by a company with multiple citations at its various operations in Florida, Pennsylvania, and now Holyoke by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
It also raises issues of transparency and effectiveness for the Cannabis Control Commission, an agency that has prided itself on being the gold standard on both during its just over five years in business.
The story of McMurrey’s death was first widely discussed in late September by cannabis activist Mike Crawford on his podcast “The Young Jurks.” He quoted a co-worker of McMurrey’s who said she had quit the Trulieve Grow Facility a month earlier over conditions at the plant. She leveled the accusation in a post on McMurrey’s online obituary.
McMurrey, according to her family, was filling pre-rolled joints with ground cannabis flowers at the facility when she complained of being unable to breathe. She was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where she died several days later.
The company reports it notified OSHA immediately, as required by law, and state regulators. But when news of the death broke last month, Commissioner Bruce Stebbins, who was a commission member at the time of McMurrey’s death, and newly appointed Commission Chair Shannon O’Brien were both flummoxed.
They were blindsided, it appears, by their own staff, who now insist an investigation into health and safety practices at the facility had already begun before McMurrey’s death and was continuing. According to a statement released Friday by the Cannabis Control Commission, it’s apparently standard operating procedure to keep the five commissioners in the dark lest their role as “ultimate arbiter” be compromised.
“To avoid pre-judging any applicant or licensee, Cannabis Control Commissioners are not customarily privy to investigations that are being performed at the staff level,” the statement read. “If an investigation leads to an administrative enforcement action, Commissioners hold a place as ultimate arbiter in an appeal procedure.”
Is there some parallel universe in which this tail wagging the dog scenario makes sense? It would be the equivalent of, say, the FBI going out and doing an investigation but keeping the local US attorney’s office in the dark until it deemed a case worthy of prosecution.
The investigation was launched in the fall of 2021, before McMurrey’s death, in response to “employee complaints.” One former employee interviewed by the Globe who quit in August 2021 complained that the firm only provided paper medical-style masks and that most workers were afraid to speak up about safety concerns.
And while that isn’t unusual in the industry, a report by a working group in Colorado studying health and safety issues found, “they do not provide a level of respiratory protection compared to disposable filtering facepiece respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.”
It’s hard not to wonder whether a more timely investigation of the 2021 complaint might have averted McMurrey’s death.
OSHA fined Trulieve more than $35,000 in connection with the McMurrey fatality — findings the company is contesting, arguing, according to a company spokesperson, that dust levels at the facility were “well below acceptable ranges.” The case is one of six still-open OSHA cases involving Trulieve facilities. In 2020 the company was fined more than $10,000 for violations at Florida facilities of respiratory protection and hazard communication rules. Six of the seven violations were deemed “serious” by OSHA.
The CCC statement also noted that since being advised of McMurrey’s death it “has collaborated with state and federal agencies,” including the state Department of Public Health and OSHA, which, it noted “has primary jurisdiction of incidents involving workplace safety.”
Well, OSHA has had its say — albeit one that is being contested. The CCC retains the right to inspect facilities under its jurisdiction at any time for any reason. But all of that is pretty meaningless to the workers who report day in and day out to a facility where one young woman died and other workers have filed complaints that to this day remain unanswered.
A self-congratulatory press release issued last month on the commission’s fifth anniversary, noted, “Maintaining public health, safety, and welfare is a central pillar of both the Commission’s work and a safe cannabis industry, beginning with ensuring licensee compliance with agency regulations.”
Surely that includes workplace safety.
It’s long past time for commissioners, including the new chair, to demand a role in an investigatory process instead of leaving it to the commission’s bureaucracy. It’s that bureaucracy that has gone more than nine months without issuing a report or — until Friday — a single public statement on the McMurrey death and its aftermath. For a commission that has prided itself on transparency, that’s a disgrace. It’s also a wake-up call to do better.
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