The state Department of Public Health on Thursday called on the cannabis industry to take steps to prevent work-related asthma, in the wake of the 2022 death of a 27-year-old worker from an asthma attack triggered by cannabis dust.
The department also sent a bulletin to health care providers asking them to be alert for asthma among cannabis industry employees and reminding them of the requirement to report cases of work-related asthma and other respiratory diseases to the state.
The actions come after the publication Thursday of the results of an investigation of the incident by the health department and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Occupational allergic diseases, including asthma, are an emerging concern in the rapidly expanding U.S. cannabis industry,” the report said.
Lorna McMurrey became short of breath and collapsed on Jan. 4, 2022, while filling prerolled joints with ground cannabis flower at a cultivation and processing center in Holyoke. She died three days later at a nearby hospital. It was the first time a cannabis production worker died of occupational asthma in the United States.
The facility was owned by Trulieve, a Florida-based company that has since closed its operations in Massachusetts. In a settlement with OSHA, Trulieve agreed to pay a reduced fine of just over $14,500 for failing to study whether ground cannabis dust constitutes a “hazardous chemical.”
According to the health department’s investigation, there is no evidence that McMurrey had asthma before she started working with cannabis in May 2021. But within about three months, she started suffering from a cough, shortness of breath, and a runny nose.
In October 2021, she became a flower technician in the grinding room, filling jars with unprocessed flowers and buds and filling prerolls with ground cannabis — and her symptoms worsened. Five weeks later, she became so severely short of breath that an ambulance was called but felt better after getting oxygen and albuterol at a hospital.
On Jan. 4, 2022, she was creating prerolled cannabis joints, wearing a N95 mask. She became short of breath and was coughing and using her inhaler until she collapsed.
Although McMurrey’s death was the first, other cases of respiratory disease among Massachusetts workers in that industry have been reported, health officials said.
The state’s more than 22,000 cannabis workers can be exposed to cannabis dust, mold, volatile organic compounds, pollen, bacteria, pesticides, soil components, and cleaning disinfectants, and these can cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses and other chronic diseases, the health department noted in a news release.
The department’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program, which investigates work-related fatalities, on Thursday issued a 17-page report describing the circumstances of the death and recommending steps to prevent another one.
Health officials faulted the facility for failing to recognize that ground cannabis can cause respiratory illness, failing to adequately control airborne cannabis dust, and failing to provide a comprehensive safety and health program.
The state recommends that cannabis facilities assess and control hazardous materials in the workplace, ensure that all workers are properly trained about such materials, and develop a comprehensive safety and health program.
Brenda Quintana, labor community trainer and organizer with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said that cannabis workers’ health and safety have been a growing concern. “There’s currently not a lot of avenues for workers to seek support to address this hazard,” she said. “Generally worker health and safety is largely absent in state regulations of the cannabis industry.”
She called the health department’s recommendations “strong” but said there is a need for “concrete enforceable regulations.”
“We want to recognize the importance of continuing to spotlight and remember Lorna McMurrey’s story and the tragedy of this workplace fatality,” Quintana added.
Asked to comment, the Cannabis Control Commission said in a statement that the federal and state investigative reports “will be valuable tools in our continued efforts to ensure worker protections are strong at licensed marijuana facilities.”
“In general, scientific understanding like this will help keep our agents safe, and we look forward to ongoing research into all health issues associated with our developing industry to ensure workers, patients, and consumers know the risk,” the statement said.
In addition to the state’s report, an article describing the incident was published in Thursday’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As this workforce continues to expand, it will require all of us working together – state and federal agencies, regulators, healthcare providers, and the cannabis industry – to improve working conditions for these employees,” Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Robert Goldstein said in a statement.