Lorna McMurrey’s death begs the question: What dangers are cannabis workers facing, and who’s looking out for their health?
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.
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.
Death of a Trimmer (Part 1): 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”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”