It took the tragic death of Lorna McMurrey, from West Springfield, for state and federal health officials to confirm what many workers already suspected: Cannabis production work can cause asthma, and employers can do more to prevent it.
Recent reports from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make concrete recommendations for how companies can reduce the risk of cannabis-related asthma among employees. But recommendations are not enough. State regulators should enshrine into law additional workplace safety requirements to ensure workers are properly protected. As the cannabis industry matures and more is learned about the manufacturing process and its potential dangers, it is incumbent that workplace health and safety rules keep up. No worker should die or suffer from respiratory illness because of a preventable occupational hazard.
According to the CDC report, McMurrey, who died in January 2022, is the first US cannabis worker whose death was attributed to occupational asthma. She first got sick in July 2021, two months after starting work in Trulieve’s Holyoke cannabis processing plant. She was taken to the emergency room in November 2021 after experiencing shortness of breath while working in an area where cannabis was ground and made into cigarettes. In January, she again experienced shortness of breath, along with sneezing and coughing at work, then suffered cardiac arrest before emergency medical services arrived. She was hospitalized and died three days later.
The CDC investigation found McMurrey wore her own N95 mask. The dust from a grinder was vacuumed, but the vacuum had no HEPA filter, allowing dust to escape.
Four of 10 of McMurrey’s coworkers in the flower production department also experienced symptoms of asthma, they told investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
On Nov. 20, McMurrey’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Trulieve, alleging that the facility was negligent in designing and installing an HVAC system that failed to properly vent the facility and that leaked, causing mold to grow on the cannabis, and in failing to implement policies to minimize workers’ exposure to cannabis dust and mold.
Trulieve has already closed its Massachusetts dispensaries.
This is not only a Massachusetts problem. Previous studies identified symptoms of work-related asthma among cannabis cultivation employees in Washington.
There are some general regulations that address alleged corporate lapses leading to McMurrey’s death. OSHA fined Trulieve $14,500 for failing to adequately communicate with workers about work-related hazards. The Cannabis Control Commission is seeking to fine Trulieve $502,500 for violating the company’s standard operating procedures related to workplace safety, failing to maintain employee training records, failing to process marijuana in a safe and sanitary manner, failing to have safe processing policies, and submitting untruthful information in an incident report. Details of the allegations were redacted in a copy of the order provided to the Globe, and the matter remains pending with the commission’s enforcement counsel staff, who review allegations to prepare for possible litigation. Typically, companies are given a chance to respond to an order, request a hearing, and potentially negotiate a settlement.
But general rules about policies and communication are no substitute for specific regulations about what precautions companies must take when cannabis is processed. OSHA has not issued cannabis-specific regulations because marijuana is still federally prohibited. While OSHA is the ideal body to issue nationwide regulations, until that void is filled, states need to step up.
“Even before this report came out, we knew that there was an absence of the proper worker health and safety regulations that would protect around some of these specific hazards,” said Brenda Quintana, an organizer with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “Currently, there’s nothing in the books that would have prevented a fatality of this sort.”
The CDC report includes specific measures employers can take to protect workers: assessing air quality to identify high-dust areas; using equipment controls like exhaust ventilation and high-efficiency vacuuming; providing personal protective equipment like masks; and training employees to recognize allergy symptoms and seek medical attention. The CDC also urges health care providers to learn to detect occupational allergies and workers compensation insurance carriers to recognize asthma-related claims.
A separate report by DPH’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program makes similar recommendations, urging employers to assess and control workplace hazards, modify equipment to mitigate hazards, train workers on handling hazardous materials, and implement a medical surveillance program to monitor worker health. DPH sent a separate bulletin to health care providers advising them about work-related asthma.
The Cannabis Control Commission distributed the DPH and CDC information to cannabis businesses. But an agency spokesperson declined to comment on whether commissioners would seek further regulation. An agency statement focused only on raising awareness, saying, “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 risks.”
Ideally, employers would voluntarily create a safe working environment. But we don’t rely on voluntary compliance to keep workers safe in construction, agriculture, health care, or any number of other industries that have detailed safety mandates imposed by OSHA. Why should we tolerate it in cannabis?
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