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Death of a Trimmer: A cannabis worker’s death went unnoticed for months. Now it’s raising alarms in the industry.

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When occupational asthma killed Lorna McMurrey, it should have set off alarms industrywide. But nobody spoke up for eight months, even as thousands of cannabis workers were—and continue to be— exposed to similar risks every day.

The Jan. 7, 2022, death of Trulieve employee Lorna McMurrey in Holyoke, Massachusetts, marked one of the first known work-related fatalities in the legal cannabis industry. Leafly is marking the one-year anniversary of her passing with “Death of a Trimmer,” an investigative series that raises troubling questions about worker safety in the legal marijuana industry.

Part One chronicles Lorna McMurrey’s life, tragic death, and the aftermath of the incident. Part Two, published tomorrow, will examine the emerging hazards of cannabis work and the urgent need for safety measures in an industry still in its infancy.

When Lorna McMurrey took a job at a marijuana production facility in Holyoke, Massachusetts, it was a central cog in her plan to level up her life.

Legal cannabis wasn’t an idly chosen profession: McMurrey was a proud consumer, and was genuinely interested in the process of how marijuana is grown, processed, and sold, says her stepfather, Dave Bruneau.

lorna-mcmurrey-portrait
Lorna McMurrey: Loved her job

She hoped the job with Trulieve—the nation’s largest cannabis company—would help her take the next steps toward a fully independent life. The regular paycheck would allow her to buy a car, get out from under her parents’ roof, and move into an apartment with friends.

At 27, she was a bit of a late bloomer, having briefly dropped out of high school before going back to earn her degree. “She raised a little hell,” Bruneau says, “but she was a good kid.”

The job was great, except…

She loved the job, Bruneau recalls, except for one issue: Toward the end of 2021 she was having trouble with the dust in the air from the dried and broken-down flower going into the pre-rolled joints she was assembling.

In November 2021, McMurrey posted on Facebook about an incident that left her gasping for air:

Three weeks later McMurrey followed up with a post that read: “I work around pounds of weed everyday. And when I do pre-rolls all the grounded bud and kief in the air triggers the asthma I didn’t know I had. But I’m hoping it’ll just heal itself or something.”

In late December 2021, she texted her stepfather to ask that he bring home one of the N95 masks he wore on his job as a welder so that she could use it at work.

But even wearing a mask, McMurrey’s issues with airborne kief (cannabis dust) mounted, causing her difficulty in breathing.

Collapsed during her shift

Part of the way through her shift on January 7, 2022, Lorna McMurrey collapsed.

Three Trulieve employees performed CPR on her. Then she was taken to Baystate Medical Center, seven miles away in Springfield. But by the time Bruneau and Lorna’s mother, Laura, arrived at the hospital, doctors informed them that she was brain dead.

Lorna McMurrey passed away that night.

lorna-mcmurrey-in-hospital
When a sudden asthma attack left her unable to breathe, Lorna McMurrey, above, was rushed to a nearby hospital. Doctors were unable to save her. (Photo courtesy Dave Bruneau)

A wake-up call for the cannabis industry

Lorna McMurrey’s death was one of the legal cannabis industry’s first on-the-job fatalities, and the incident at Holyoke should be a wake-up call for the entire cannabis industry.

For years, the annual Leafly Jobs Report has documented the rise of America’s greatest job-creation engine. As of 2022, more than 428,000 people made their living in this rapidly expanding $25 billion industry.

In the ten years since the first legalization laws passed in Colorado and Washington, companies and state regulators have focused on consumer product safety, cannabis track-and-trace systems, the prevention of underage use, and stamping out the illicit market.

But there hasn’t been a whole lot of concern for the health and safety of the workers who make the entire $25 billion engine run.

In part, that’s because the industry is so new that many aren’t aware of the risks that exist in the field, the grow room, the trimming station, the product line, and the sales floor.

Related

The US cannabis industry now supports 428,059 jobs

Lorna McMurrey died from a health hazard that was known to some old-timers in the cannabis world, but unknown to most newcomers. Regulators in some legal states were aware of the risk, but that information never made it to regulators in other legal states. Workers, managers, and owners are too often under-informed and untrained in safety protocols—if those protocols even exist.

Beyond the profound loss suffered by McMurrey and her family, friends, and co-workers, the incident raises compelling questions for the entire industry. What are the health risks of working with cannabis? Is enough being done to protect the safety of cannabis workers?

And why did eight months pass before anyone raised a public alarm about Lorna McMurrey’s death?

More cannabis worker safety resources

‘Occupational asthma’ triggered by cannabis dust

The death certificate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lists Lorna McMurrey’s cause of death as cardiac arrest and respiratory arrest, Bruneau says, along with “presumed severe asthma attack.” Officials from the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined in their investigation the cause was “occupational asthma due to exposure to ground cannabis” dust.

The last part of that phrase—exposure—deserves extra emphasis, says an emotional Bruneau. Lorna hadn’t had any noticeable lung issues before. “She didn’t smoke cigarettes,” Bruneau says, “and as far as I know, that kid didn’t have asthma. I lived with this person, all right? I mean, I’m sitting next to her fucking bedroom.”

Little realization of the risk in a new industry

Occupational asthma, also known as workplace-induced asthma, is a common hazard in many industries. Airborne particulates can exacerbate an existing asthmatic condition or induce asthma in a person who hasn’t previously experienced the condition.

Occupational asthma isn’t exactly a newly discovered hazard. Lung damage triggered by flour dust has been a recognized health risk in the baking industry since the 1700s. Wood dust is a known lung hazard in the lumber industry. Cotton dust is known to cause long-term lung damage in textile mill workers.

But Lorna McMurrey, like most cannabis workers, appeared not to have known that inhaling cannabis dust could lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

Finely ground cannabis dust is highly valued as kief, which is commonly smoked after being collected in a personal grinder, as shown here. But it can be a lung hazard if it’s inhaled in its raw form. (Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

Why didn’t we hear about her death sooner? Why does it matter?

The death of a worker in a facility producing cannabis products seems like important news—especially to other workers spending their days in an environment similar to the one that triggered McMurrey’s asthma attack.

But in the weeks and months that followed, the public heard nothing about it.

Federal law requires all employers to report a job-related hospitalization or death to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within 24 hours. Trulieve properly notified OSHA, which sent an inspection team out to Holyoke. The company also gave proper notification to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

OSHA inspectors levy a fine, but make no public announcement

OSHA-logo

Four days after McMurrey’s death, federal OSHA investigators swept through the Holyoke facility. But their report on the incident wasn’t published for nearly six months.

On June 30, 2022, OSHA Area Director Mary E. Hoye notified Trulieve that the company would be fined $35,219 for, among other things, failing to provide their employees with effective information and training about the hazards of cannabis dust, how to prevent exposure, and what signs to look for as early warnings (including coughing and shortness of breath).

Despite the seriousness of the hazard—McMurrey died, after all—OSHA officials declined to issue a news release about the agency’s findings.

That was unusual. It’s normal practice for OSHA’s national media office to publish a press release about noteworthy cases. In fact, the agency pushes out 15 to 30 releases every month. In June and July 2022, it notified the public about cases involving the death of a roofing contractor in Houston; a fatal fall at a frozen food factory in New Jersey; finger amputations at a pillow factory in Georgia; and a drowning death at a golf course pond in Florida.

But there was no media release about the death of a worker due to cannabis dust inhalation at the Trulieve facility in Massachusetts.

The OSHA fine was listed deep within a publicly searchable agency database, but if you’re not looking—and there’s no reason you would—you’d never know. Officials at the federal agency never made an effort to spread information about the incident and the significant health risks it revealed.

Massachusetts regulators: Silent on the issue

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, the state agency charged with regulating the industry, was already investigating the Trulieve facility over worker-safety issues (as a result of previous worker complaints) when McMurrey died.

massachusetts-ccc-logo

But after Trulieve notified the CCC about her death, the commission issued no public statement regarding the incident, what caused it, or why the state’s thousands of cannabis workers should be aware of the potential health risks involved with cannabis dust.

A commission spokesperson later explained that this was because the case remained under investigation. But months passed. And with its silence, the CCC neglected its duty to inform workers about a major health and safety concern.

Lorna McMurrey’s untimely death may have remained largely unknown, in fact, if not for Danny Carson, one of her former co-workers at the Holyoke facility.

Months later, a local podcaster broke the news

Months after McMurrey’s death, Carson posted about the incident on his personal Facebook page. Kim Napoli, an attorney who serves on the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board, happened to see the post. (The 25-member advisory board acts as a kind of consulting body for the five-member Cannabis Control Board, which actually sets policy and enacts rules.) Napoli mentioned the incident to Mike Crawford, who hosts a podcast about Massachusetts politics and local affairs called The Young Jurks.

Crawford dug up the OSHA report and invited Carson, Bruneau, and others onto his show to talk about what happened. Those podcast episodes, which began on Sept. 25, sparked follow-up stories in both cannabis industry outlets and mainstream media.

young-jurks-podcast-host
Mike Crawford, host of The Young Jurks podcast, first brought Lorna McMurrey’s death to the public’s attention.

Trulieve responds

Suddenly, stories about McMurrey’s death popped up all over. In October, the company addressed the incident more fully. Trulieve officials issued a statement that pushed back against what they characterized as “false reporting” about the incident:

  • Trulieve said it maintained air quality in its Holyoke facility by deploying “appropriate industrial air handling systems designed to frequently exchange and filter indoor air,” and had a “special industrial air filtration system that exchanges the air in the grinding room and has been certified by an independent engineer.”
  • The company said it provides N95 masks to the 175 employees at the Holyoke facility.
  • Trulieve said Lorna McMurrey wore an N95 mask for at least part of her shift on January 4. The company also asserted that when McMurrey told her supervisor she wasn’t feeling well, she was given the option to take the day off with pay, but she refused and continued working. Trulieve followed “appropriate protocols,” company officials said, when McMurrey “appeared to be in distress.”

“Our thoughts are with the McMurrey family for their loss,” the statement added. “Trulieve will continue to operate its facilities in a manner that fully protects the health and safety of all employees. We are confident we did so in January [2022] and will continue to do so going forward.”

Family members want more information

Not all of these claims sit well with McMurrey’s survivors. Her stepfather finds the claim that the company provided N95 masks to be implausible. “I mean, if she had access to them, why would she ask me [for them]?” says Dave Bruneau.

As for the suggestion that his stepdaughter refused an offer to take the rest of the day off? “I kind of believe that,” Bruneau says. “I really do, because she was a tough kid… she wasn’t a fucking quitter. You know, ‘I’ll stick it out.’”

“But even still. Even still.”

OSHA found earlier issues at Trulieve, Curaleaf facilities

This wasn’t Trulieve’s first experience with OSHA rules around worker safety. In 2020, the federal agency cited Trulieve for violating respiratory protection and hazard communications regulations at its grow facility in Quincy, Florida.

The following year, a worker at Trulieve’s Reading, Pennsylvania, grow facility was electrocuted and hospitalized after inadvertently touching an exposed live wire. The worker survived, and OSHA fined Trulieve $10,360 (later reduced to $7,770) for the incident.

Trulieve isn’t the only cannabis company to cross paths with OSHA inspectors. In early 2020, OSHA fined Curaleaf $40,482 (later reduced to $26,300) for seven workplace violations, such as failure to have an eye-rinse station and failing to provide safeguards for machinery, at its Bellmawr, New Jersey, facility. (Curaleaf has since partnered with OSHA to raise worker safety standards—most notably at its Nevada subsidiary, Acres Cultivation, which is one of the only cannabis facilities to earn OSHA’s SHARP designation.)

OSHA has investigated complaints about Cresco Labs, but has not issued any penalties or reports.

A search of the OSHA database for interactions with the 10 largest US cannabis companies over the past decade turned up no other results.

Trulieve and OSHA reached agreement last month

Following OSHA’s notification letter to Trulieve on June 30, the company spent months disputing the findings and negotiating with OSHA officials.

In an announcement released on December 22, Trulieve officials said they’d reached a voluntary agreement with OSHA over McMurrey’s death. The agreement, the company said, will result in “additional health and safety protections for Trulieve workers at its cannabis manufacturing facilities.” 

Under the agreement, OSHA reduced the company’s original $35,219 fine to $14,502. Trulieve agreed to conduct a study to “determine whether ground cannabis dust is required to be classified as a ‘hazardous chemical’ in the occupational setting, according to OSHA regulations.” The study is to be finished by May 29, 2023.

New training programs promised

The Trulieve-OSHA agreement announced on Dec. 22 also included these provisions (quoting from the Trulieve press release):

Pending the outcome of the study, Trulieve will design and implement a temporary information and training program that alerts employees to potential allergic reactions they might experience working with ground cannabis dust in an occupational setting. The program will include information about steps employees should take if they experience symptoms of allergies related to ground cannabis dust. Work on that program is already underway. 

In addition, Trulieve will evaluate a series of actions that may include:

  • Engaging a health professional to develop a program that gives workers guidance on how to manage potential health impacts resulting from potential reactions to ground cannabis dust.
  • Making employees more aware of job transfer options, if available.
  • Making permanent the temporary information and training program.
  • Investigating options to better limit access and exposure to the areas where commercial grinding of cannabis occurs.
  • Establishing policies that increase the presence of workers available who are trained in first aid.

Leafly contacted Trulieve for further information about the company’s experience and perspective. Trulieve officials declined our interview request, instead offering this statement:

As the leader in the cannabis industry, Trulieve is committed to developing best practices that are applicable industry wide. We owe it to our employees and their families to continually make improvements in their working conditions. We are working with OSHA to implement these best practices and are open to the involvement of any state and local regulatory agencies in assisting us with advancing these objectives.

Officials at OSHA still have not issued a news release about Lorna McMurrey’s death or the final agreement with Trulieve.

Massachusetts cannabis commissioners kept in the dark

The public, the media, and cannabis industry workers are similarly waiting to hear from the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. One year after McMurrey’s death, the CCC has yet to issue any findings about the incident or any advisories about the potential health risks of cannabis dust.

The Massachusetts CCC enjoys a reputation as the gold standard among regulatory agencies in legal states. But its handling of the Holyoke incident has tarnished that status.

Things looked particularly awkward back in October, when two commissioners told reporters they hadn’t known about McMurrey’s death until September 2022—eight months after it happened.

Massachusetts-cannabis-commission-chair-shannon-obrien
Shannon O’Brien, chair of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, has said she didn’t learn about Lorna McMurrey’s death until eight months after it happened. (Photo: Massachusetts CCC)

Asked by Leafly for comment, a commission spokesperson sent a copy of a previous statement reiterating what had already been reported: The CCC was investigating Trulieve before McMurrey’s death, and continues to look into both the tragic incident and potential earlier violations. “Due to the nature of this investigation, the agency has no further comment at this time,” the statement said. The CCC didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

In its statement, the CCC noted that it typically withholds information about investigations from its commissioners “to avoid pre-judging any applicant or licensee.”

Why would CCC leaders not be informed?

Julia Agron, a cannabis educator and former program coordinator for the Cannabis Education Center at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, said the state cannabis commission’s lack of public response is predictable enough, in that the agency typically reveals the bare minimum about its enforcement activities.

But Agron pointed out that the CCC’s “pre-judging” reasoning is nonsensical. “That’s like saying the [district attorney] can’t know what the police are investigating because it could change the investigation,” Agron told Leafly. “That seems crazy… The only way having knowledge of it would influence the investigation is if they are unduly wielding their influence very consciously.”

The Boston Globe agreed. In an editorial published on Oct. 18, the paper’s editorial board noted that the commissioners were apparently kept in the dark about the Trulieve investigation by staff members. “Is there some parallel universe in which this tail wagging the dog scenario makes sense?” wondered the Globe. “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.”

One death reveals many hazards in a young industry

Lorna McMurrey’s work-related death remained unknown to the rest of the cannabis industry for eight months. But now that her tragic demise has come to light, the entire incident is revealing a number of glaring gaps in the regulatory systems designed to guard the safety of both workers and consumers.

Trulieve officials properly notified state and federal agencies about the incident, but took no steps to publicly warn others in the industry about the workplace hazards that killed Lorna McMurrey. OSHA officials properly inspected the Holyoke facility after the incident, but did not issue a media release that might have spread the word about the workplace risk. Massachusetts Cannabis Control Board leaders, faced with one of the legal cannabis industry’s first work-related deaths, chose to say nothing.

It should be said that Leafly and other cannabis media platforms did not exactly step up, either. A cannabis worker died on the job and we knew nothing about it until Mike Crawford started talking about it eight months later on his podcast.

We pledge to do better. In tomorrow’s installment of this series, we’ll focus on the potential health hazards that thousands of cannabis workers face as they create the products that power America’s fastest-growing industry.



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asthma

Death of a Trimmer: A shocking death reveals serious health hazards in the cannabis industry

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The Jan. 7, 2022, death of Trulieve employee Lorna McMurrey in Holyoke, Massachusetts, marked one of the first known work-related fatalities in the legal cannabis industry. Leafly is marking the one-year anniversary of her passing with “Death of a Trimmer,” an investigative series that raises troubling questions about worker safety in the legal marijuana industry.

Part One chronicled Lorna McMurrey’s life, tragic death, and the aftermath of the incident. Part Two, published here, examines the emerging hazards of cannabis work and the urgent need for safety measures in an industry still in its infancy.

For a few members of the cannabis industry, the deadly asthma attack Lorna McMurrey suffered in a cannabis processing facility in January 2022 wasn’t shocking at all.

In some ways, they had been expecting it.

lorna-mcmurrey
Lorna McMurrey: Occupational asthma led to death

They hadn’t known it would strike McMurrey, an otherwise healthy 27-year-old who suffered a severe work-related asthma attack in a cannabis processing facility in Holyoke, Massachusetts. That asthma attack led to her hospitalization and ultimately her death.

But a handful of the industry’s most experienced cannabis growers knew inhaling cannabis dust wasn’t healthy—and they knew that it had the potential to shut down a person’s airways. They’ve tried to share that information, but few were interested in hearing it or acting on it.

Related

Death of a Trimmer: A cannabis worker’s death went unnoticed for months. Now it’s raising alarms in the industry.

Cannabis flower can set off a serious, severe reaction

Theo Lewis is one of those people. Lewis is the founder and CEO of Teds Budz, one of Southern California’s leading distributors of boutique indoor flower. He’s old school, having earned his stripes in the legacy market before transitioning into today’s state-licensed industry.

Some cannabis growers have experienced work-related asthma set off by the plant. It can get so bad they can’t even visit cultivation sites anymore.

When Lewis started his cannabis growing operation years ago, he worked without gloves and interacted closely with the flower, putting his face directly into the plant, breathing it in. Then something happened. About four months into the cultivation cycle, Lewis developed a “serious, severe” allergic response that initially took the form of hives that covered his body.

“After a while,” he told me, “I couldn’t even be in the house with the plants at all. It would clog up my lungs and clog up my throat, and I couldn’t really breathe. I had to go to the hospital.”

Lewis was circumspect with doctors about the origins of his medical problem—this was pre-legalization—but they recognized it as an allergic reaction and gave him steroids and inhalers. He says he was already prone to seasonal allergies, so he suspects he had a stronger response.

Over the years, the situation devolved to the point where Lewis couldn’t visit cultivation sites anymore—“just because I know after a while it will affect me,” he said.

More about cannabis worker safety

“The dust goes all over the place”

farmer-tom-lauerman-smoking-a-pipe-at-his-farm
Farmer Tom Lauerman, one of the most respected elders in cannabis, has spent years documenting the hazards of weed work—and created protocols to stay healthy on the job. (Photo: Patrick Bennett)

Tom Lauerman knows plenty about cannabis and employee safety. “Farmer Tom,” as he’s known in the industry, has operated a cannabis business for almost 50 years, going back decades before legalization. For the past seven years he’s worked on cannabis workplace safety issues with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State of Washington, and other government agencies.

“We’ve started seeing the effects of these large [commercial-scale processing operations],” Lauerman told me. “I’ve been to a lot of operations that do pre-rolls, and pre-rolls are the worst because they use those grinders that are basically like little whips. They put them in these tubes, and then the dust goes all over the place in the room. If you’re stuck in a room there for seven, eight hours a day, bad things are gonna happen.”

Lauerman, who is based near the Washington-Oregon border, has hosted a number of scientists and federal officials over the years, allowing them to “learn, touch and study” the plants. In 2015, he invited a team from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) to use his cannabis farm as a testing lab. Over three days they developed safety protocols for harvesting, bucking, trimming, and prepping flower. That information is posted on Lauerman’s website, farmertomorganics.

colorado-cannabis-processing-facility-with-weed-trimmers
A trimmer with a cannabis allergy wears a respirator, glasses, and coveralls in this 2015 photo from cultivator/processor Bolder Cannabis in Boulder, CO. Trimmers without allergies all wore gloves. (Photo: David Downs)

Byssinosis (brown lung disease): Potential long-term hazard?

Lorna McMurrey’s death made it clear that occupational asthma, caused by airborne particles of cannabis, is a risk potentially faced by thousands of workers just like her. But there’s another potential hazard that’s more insidious and long-lasting, one that’s more commonly associated with workers from a bygone era.

Brown lung disease afflicted many textile workers in the American South before health protocols were put in place.

In a study published in Jan. 2022 in the medical journal Allergy, British allergy and immunology researchers noted that “prolonged occupational exposure to hemp dust results in respiratory irritation, airflow obstruction, and inflammation called ‘byssinosis.’”

Byssinosis is an occupational lung disease caused by inhaling dust from cotton, hemp, or other plant fibers. It’s more commonly known as brown lung disease, an affliction suffered in the past by many cotton textile workers in the American South.

Byssinosis is a narrowing of the airways that’s thought to be triggered by a bacterial toxin in raw plant matter that’s inhaled as dust. Victims may wheeze or have difficulty breathing, and prolonged exposure over months or years can lead to permanent lung damage.

The malady is one of the ways workers in many industries can be afflicted with workplace-induced asthma. Airborne particulates in the workplace can exacerbate an existing asthmatic condition or induce asthma in a person who hasn’t previously experienced the condition.

This video, produced by NIOSH, explains how cotton dust and the lack of health protocols led to brown lung disease among textile mill workers in North Carolina in the 1970s:

Study from 1968 found lung problems in hemp factory workers

Because cannabis has been illegal for so long, little research has been done on the health effects of commercial-scale marijuana production.

In 1968, though, scientists in Yugoslavia studied 106 workers in a factory that processed hemp—the same cannabis sativa plant that today’s weed workers handle every day. In one department, 41% of the workers had byssinosis and 15% had chronic bronchitis.

“There is no doubt that the dust of Cannabis sativa hemp can cause byssinosis and at least temporary impairment of ventilatory function,” the researchers wrote.

byssinosis-study-of-hemp-factory-workers
A 1968 study found that workers in a hemp factory had inhaled cannabis dust that caused byssinosis, chronic bronchitis, and other lung injuries. (Click image for full study.)

A second study, which looked at the health of longtime Spanish hemp workers, was published in 1969. That report found “an extremely high prevalence of chronic cough and phlegm, dyspnea and irreversible pulmonary function loss, compared to control subjects of the same age group” in older workers (age 50 to 69).

“The chronic and disabling respiratory disease of hemp workers cannot be explained by smoking habits and is attributed to heavy and prolonged exposure to hemp dust,” concluded the authors of the 1969 study, which was published in the American Journal of Medicine.

Cautionary guidance from Washington State

There’s little current research tying byssinosis to today’s legal cannabis workers, in part because large-scale cannabis production is still so new. But some state regulators are aware of anecdotal evidence.

Washington State regulators have noted a connection “between plant dust inhalation and a risk for work-related breathing problems.”

In 2017, Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries issued a cautionary guidance for cannabis workers, noting that industrial-scale cultivation “has highlighted a connection between plant dust inhalation and a risk for work-related breathing problems.”

In 2020 and 2021, the same agency also conductedstudies that found that cannabis employees have experienced asthma attacks and related symptoms while taking on a variety of on-the-job tasks, including measuring, packaging, weighing, and trimming flower.

The research identified these potential asthma causes in cannabis processing centers:

  • exposure to plants
  • inhaling dust caused by trimming or chopping
  • exposure to mold spores on plants or containers
  • exposure to various chemicals related to cannabis cultivation, processing, manufacture, and testing
  • or some combination of these factors.

The information wasn’t widely known

That information rarely moved from Washington to the 20 other states that have legalized marijuana—perhaps because of the extremely siloed nature of cannabis, which, by law, cannot travel across state lines.

Julia Agron, a cannabis educator and former program coordinator for the Cannabis Education Center at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, compared the situation to the early days of other industries.

Consider the birth of the railroad industry during the 1870-1890 era, said Agron: “History books tell me there were a lot of accidents when that was happening.” Workplace safety laws and expectations have come a long way since then, “but we’re still establishing something new,” she added. “And so we’re watching some of those hiccups as we figure it out.”

NIOSH-using-trimming-glove-to-find-data
NIOSH experts used a special trimming glove, attached to sensors, to record data about potential repetitive stress on a cannabis trimmer’s hand. (Photo courtesy Tom Lauerman)

A federal agency actually helping: NIOSH

In the world of worker safety, NIOSH and OSHA kind of play good cop, bad cop. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is the Department of Labor agency that conducts inspections and levies fines. NIOSH, which operates under the Centers for Disease Control, acts as a sort of agricultural extension office, offering advice to companies in order to keep their workers safe and prevent any trouble with OSHA.

In a pre-roll processing room, “the dust goes all over the place. And if you’re stuck in there for eight hours a day, bad things are gonna happen.”

– Farmer Tom Lauerman

The preliminary standards established at Farmer Tom’s grow were published in a 2017 report. NIOSH passes the report on to new states when they legalize—but only if the states seek them out, Lauerman told me. “They use my SOPs as the foundation for workplace health and safety standards,” he said. “The work’s in the Library of Congress because it was a federally sponsored study.”

Early concerns were for consumers, not workers

What people mostly seemed concerned about in the industry’s early days was product safety for consumers—not on-the-job safety for workers. The well-being of the people creating the product was largely an afterthought. Although some states have worked to develop a set of protocols—including Colorado and Washington—new states are legalizing cannabis in some form nearly every year, and most largely start from scratch as they do so.

As it turns out, that frustrating cycle of wheel reinvention isn’t necessary. Information about cannabis worker safety practices and protocols is available—if you know where to look.

Discovering NIOSH’s federal reports on worker safety

Cannabis remains federally illegal. So it may come as a surprise to discover that a federal agency has actually been working with state-legal marijuana companies to establish protocols that reduce the health and safety risks faced by cannabis workers.

After talking with Farmer Tom Lauerman, I got in touch with his contact at NIOSH.

James Couch, branch chief of the Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance program at NIOSH, called Lauerman a “great ally” in the effort to keep cannabis workers safe.

Since 2015, Couch and his colleagues have conducted health hazard evaluations at a number of state-licensed cannabis growing and processing facilities. These evaluations can be requested by a group of three or more employees, a union, or the business itself.

When those evaluations are done, NIOSH publishes a report on their findings and recommendations (without naming the company or giving away identifying details). Over the past five years the agency has published three reports (in 2017, 2018, and 2022) identifying the hazards of cannabis growing, harvesting, and processing—and protocols to protect worker health.

NIOSH-report-on-worker-safety
NIOSH produced this report in 2017 after studying Tom Lauerman’s working cannabis farm. (Click image to access report)

Great reports never got the exposure they deserved

The frustrating thing is that almost nobody in the cannabis industry knows these reports exist. I only discovered them, after months of research into cannabis worker safety, because NIOSH’s James Couch mentioned them in an offhand comment during our interview.

In conjunction with this series, Leafly has published a resource guide to cannabis worker safety that includes links to those NIOSH reports.

State regulators are new to the job, new to the industry

One of the challenges of regulating employee safety in a newborn industry is a basic lack of knowledge about working conditions. Because research doesn’t yet exist, many regulators in the 21 states that have legalized the adult use of cannabis simply don’t know what health hazards they should be looking for.

“The fire department and cannabis inspectors were asking us questions, because they didn’t know anything.”

– Jeff Levers, co-founder of Beard Bros Pharms

That startling realization came home to Bill and Jeff Levers four years ago. The Levers brothers operate Beard Bros Pharms, a California-based cannabis cultivation and media company they co-founded in 2013. They also publish a website and weekly newsletter about the industry, and in total boast more than 30 years of cultivation experience.

beard-brothers-founders-of-beard-bros-pharms
Jeff and Bill Levers, Beard Bros founders

In 2018, after California voted to fully legalize, the brothers secured state licensing for distribution and manufacturing as social-equity applicants.

They still vividly recall what occurred when government inspection crews arrived on day one at their Los Angeles facility. None of the inspectors seemed to have a clue what to look for in terms of marijuana-specific onsite safety.

“We had the fire department and the actual cannabis inspector showing up and asking us questions, because they didn’t know anything,” Jeff Levers told Leafly. “And there were no regulations written specifically for fire code, or where does the machinery go, or ventilation. There was none of that written anywhere.”

There is no single set of guidelines to consult

Worker safety regulations usually start with the federal government. The U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA can investigate any workplace under its General Duty Clause, which requires an employer to furnish to its workers “a place of employment which [is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

OSHA-logo

But because the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, OSHA has never set out specific standards for licensed cannabis facilities. The only federal standards exist in the NIOSH recommendations that Lauerman helped create. But NIOSH protocols are voluntary, and the agency has no enforcement power. 

That leaves states and local municipalities with a patchwork of regulations generated by building, health, fire, or environmental protection agencies. Some of the rules have been created by people who work in food safety, alcohol, or other parallel but distinctly different fields. Others, Bill Levers contends, are being written by “a group of politicians who are being told by paid lobbyists how they should write regulations.”

OSHA-fact-sheet-on-occupational-asthma
This OSHA Fact Sheet isn’t specific to cannabis, but it’s a good primer on occupational asthma.

Standards are too vague

Julia Agron told Leafly that Massachusetts’ guidelines remain far too vague. The state’s CCC regulations require that businesses meet basic worker-safety standards, but they’re often not explicit about how to accomplish that. “There isn’t a lot of detail that says, ‘This is how you create worker safety, or this is how you have to manage X, Y or Z,’” she said.

When companies apply for state cannabis licenses, they must submit standard operating procedures, including safety provisions. But each company sets its own practices, and neither state regulators nor OSHA are there 24-7 to make sure everything is done by the book.

“State regulators really need to jump in and set a foundation,” said Tom Lauerman, “so that the workers are safe. Especially with this high overturn, and every kid in the world wants to be in the industry, and they’ll work for next to nothing to get their foot in the door. And [the companies] take advantage of all these things… Each state really needs to care about the workers because the corporations do not care about the workers.”

Union organizers see worker safety as a top-priority issue

Clear employee-safety regulations are obviously crucial, but beyond that the cannabis industry may not have enough compliance structures in place. Regulations are only useful if someone is watching to see that they’re implemented.

Some think state agencies like the Massachusetts CCC are too shorthanded and ill-equipped to keep up with a fast-growing and dynamic new industry.

UFCW-union-logo

Aidan Coffey, organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, told Leafly the state cannabis commission is “filled with very good-hearted, hard-working people who want to do their best by cannabis workers. But I don’t think that they have the budget they need to truly do the enforcement job that the legislation intended them to do. So the CCC needs more resources in order to protect cannabis worker safety.”

The way Coffey sees it, if state regulators can’t protect cannabis workers, maybe unions can. The UFCW is now pushing to organize Trulieve’s workers in Holyoke and the company’s three other Massachusetts locations, in Framingham, Northampton and Worcester.

‘Worker safety is an industrywide problem’

Coffey said the McMurrey incident has clearly motivated Trulieve employees. “You can draw a direct line in this campaign as far as when the workers started talking about organizing and the events out West,” he said, referring to McMurrey’s death in Holyoke.

Big-picture safety worries extend far beyond one company, Coffey added. “The problems at the Holyoke facility are in no way unique to Trulieve in Massachusetts,” he told Leafly. “Worker safety, especially in the grows, is an industrywide problem.”

Coffey said he believes the industry needs to take three steps in the wake of McMurrey’s death. Workers need to be free to organize; more safety regulations need to be put in place; and the CCC and similar statewide agencies need to be beefed up. “There is work to be done on worker safety across the country in cannabis,” he said.

What is a company’s responsibility?

Karima Rizk thinks it’s a matter of will. Rizk has held numerous positions in the cannabis industry since 2016, most recently as a senior vice president for compliance at Green Meadows Farm in Massachusetts. She said worker safety is ultimately a matter of each company digging deep enough and expending enough resources.

Preventing injuries starts with cannabis companies taking worker safety seriously, and investing in it.

She has designed training and incident management systems that are geared toward preventing work-related injuries in the cannabis industry. Frontline supervisors, she said, should know how to recognize signs of health issues with workers—including allergies to ground cannabis dust and cleaning solutions, which can result in headaches and breathing trouble.

Workers and supervisors need to know what specific steps to take if things go sideways. Any employee in her former company who complained of not feeling well, she said, was immediately sent to consult with a healthy and safety engineer.

cannabis-workers-in-a-grow-room
Cannabis production can require eye protection, skin protection, and a variety of protocols for the safe handling of pesticides, fertilizers, and other compounds. In this photo, workers harvest plants at a medical marijuana grow operated by Greenlight, in Grandview, Missouri. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Safety requires investment: Time, energy, and money

Rizk said she thinks the industry can do more to prevent workplace injuries—and it starts with cannabis companies taking worker safety seriously, and investing in it.

She called Lorna McMurrey’s death “a case study in why both compliance and environmental health and safety is essential to run a legal cannabis business.”

“It is a significant oversight for well-capitalized, multi-state operators to not have the proper dedicated resources, knowledge, training, and systems in place to monitor and take appropriate action,” she added.

Cannabis businesses need to do better by their employees. Maybe, if nothing else, Lorna McMurrey’s all-too-short life and tragic death will help make that happen.

‘The government wants to make a lot of money,” Tom Lauerman told me. “And they’re really not concerned about the people who are doing the work. Those are the people who are unfairly being hurt because of the overall neglect of these corporations and the states—the commissions—that [oversee] these operations. I think the responsibility is on both of them.”



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asthma

Careful Pot-Loving Parents! This Disease Is On The Rise In Legal Weed States

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By Nina Zdinjak

Is there a relationship between cannabis legalization and the number of children with pediatric asthma? A new study published in Preventive Medicine sheds some light on the question.

Researchers behind an “ecologic analysis” estimated the impact of medical or recreational cannabis legalization on the number of pediatric asthma cases, reported New Medical.

Asthma is considered the most prevalent chronic condition among children in the U.S., with pediatric asthma estimated to affect over 6 million children. At the same time, marijuana use has been increasing among adults, especially in states where it is legal.

So, is there a connection between the two? The study authors seem to think so. They concluded that asthma prevalence increased in states where cannabis was legalized for recreational use in recent years.

According to recent statistics, marijuana was used by 11.9% of parents with minor children in legal recreational marijuana states, followed by states with medical marijuana programs and the lowest (6.1%) in states without legal marijuana laws. As cannabis legalization and popularization grow, so does exposure to secondhand smoke, which can lead to pediatric asthma.

The study revealed that the overall prevalence of asthma in the pediatric population was no longer dropping in recent years (relative to 2016-17). Furthermore, the study discovered no significant difference in asthma prevalence between states with legal medical marijuana and recreational programs.

Omicron 2022: What Parents Should Know About Sending Their Kids Back To School
Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

The number of children with asthma aged 12 to 17 grew in states with legal adult-use cannabis markets, compared to states that have not legalized marijuana.

RELATED: Secondhand Bong Smoke Way More Toxic Than Tobacco — Here’s Why

At the same time, previous research has shown that certain cannabinoids found in cannabis such as THC, may act as a bronchodilator, reducing respiratory obstruction and increasing airflow to the lungs. In fact, a 2012 study published in the journal American Review of Respiratory Disease showed that on average, those who used cannabis actually displayed better lung function than their peers who did not smoke at all.

The Dangers Of Secondhand Smoke

On the other hand, the new study refers to secondhand smoke, as did a recent University of California, Berkeley study that revealed secondhand marijuana smoke to be more harmful than secondhand tobacco smoke.

That study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that nonsmokers may be exposed to air pollutants at concentrations equal to twice federal air quality limits.

RELATED: Nicotine, Weed Or Booze? This Is The Most Common Substance Being Used By Teens

An aerosol monitor positioned where a bystander might sit measured the air quality — more precisely, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — of a bong smoker’s living room where a group of young adults smoked cannabis over the course of two hours. The instrument recorded PM2.5 levels before, during and after eight sessions.

The results showed that cannabis bong smoking increased PM2.5 from background levels by at least 100-fold. Moreover, after the initial 15 minutes of smoking, PM2.5 concentration — which can travel deep into the respiratory tract and impact lung function — significantly exceeded air quality levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This article originally appeared on Benzinga and has been reposted with permission.



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allergies

Patients With Allergic Disease Have Higher Odds Of Developing This Condition

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Allergic reactions vary greatly, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other. While some responses don’t need medical attention to resolve, others need immediate intervention. To make matters worse, new research has discovered a link between allergic diseases and cardiovascular ones.

The study, published in the American College of Cardiology, found that adults with a history of allergic disease, such as eczema, hives, asthma, hay fever and food allergies, had a higher risk of high blood pressure. Those who had asthma were at the greatest risk. The sstudy confirmed a link between allergies and heart disease that has existed for some time.

While asthma and allergic reactions are considered different diseases, they often coincide with external substances (pollen, for example) capable of prompting both reactions at the same time.

Marijuana Allergies? Here's What You Should Know
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya via Unsplash

RELATED: Doing This At Any Level Increases Your Risk Of Heart Disease, Finds Study

Scientists tested their data against 10,000 allergy sufferers between the ages fo 18-57 who participated in a National Health Interview Survey. They found that subjects between the ages of 39 to 57 had the highest risk for coronary heart disease.

While researchers don’t know why this link exists, they believe it has something to do with people’s inflammatory systems. When there’s an allergen attack, the immune system increases blood flow to the affected area, which can trigger inflammation to a degree that can quickly turn problematic.

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection and fighting off a variety of pathogens. But it’s also connected to a variety of chronic conditions that include diabetes, high blood pressure, and more.

RELATED: Eating This Fruit Twice A Week Can Reduce Odds Of Heart Disease

Interestingly enough, inflammation also plays a big part in COVID-19. The virus’ infection triggers a strong response from the body’s immune system, which can then result in organ damage and long-term repercussions. For those struggling with long COVID, some studies have found links between the condition and a prolonged response from the immune system, one that can last for up to eight months.



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