A lawsuit has been filed over what has been identified as the cannabis industry’s first asthma workplace death.
The mother of a worker who died from an asthma attack at a Massachusetts cannabis processing plant in 2022 has brought wrongful death claims against the cannabis firm, its safety manager, and the contractors responsible for the plant’s duct and ventilation systems.
The cannabis firm, Trulieve, has not yet responded to the lawsuit but previously defended its workplace operations in October 2022 while contesting three citations and penalties by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The worker’s mother, Laura Bruneau, claims that the death of her daughter Lorna McMurrey was the result of negligence by the cannabis facility’s owners, along with their safety manager, in allegedly failing to provide adequate safety training and failing to maintain their machinery to minimize exposure to airborne cannabis dust and/mold inside the facility.
In addition, the suit alleges negligence by the owners, a general contractor and two mechanical contractors in the design and installation of the building’s HVAC system, which the suit claims not only failed to adequately ventilate but also leaked, causing mold to grow.
In January 2022, McMurrey, 27, collapsed for the second time in a matter of months while working in the “pre-roll” production room at the Trulieve cannabis production facility located in Holyoke. She had suffered a similar attack in November 2021. On both occasions she was hospitalized for a severe asthma attack as a result of exposure to hazardous airborne ground cannabis dust and/or mold, according to the complaint. Three days after her collapse in January, McMurrey died in the hospital with her mother at her bedside.
An analysis by Massachusetts public health and federal workplace safety officials determined that McMurrey died of occupational asthma due to the exposure to ground cannabis. They said this was the cannabis production industry’s first reported occupational asthma death and identified allergic diseases such as asthma as a growing concern in the cannabis industry.
The Bruneau complaint filed in Hampden County Superior Court against Trulieve describes the “pre-roll” production room where McMurrey was assigned as a small room, with poor ventilation, four grinding machines, and up to 10 workers. The grinding machines break the cannabis flower down into smaller matter. A separate machine shakes the ground cannabis into tubes, creating pre-rolled joints.
The suit claims that emissions from the grinding machines made the air in the room thick with sticky cannabis dust, sometimes referred to as kief. The cannabis dust/kief would “cover workers from head to toe, and often workers would leave the facility covered in the sticky substance,” according to the complaint.
The “pre-roll” room was equipped with a “shop-vac” used to vacuum up and filter dust particles that were not being adequately ventilated by the HVAC system. Even when the shop-vac was in use, dust was visible in the air during the grinding process, the suit claims.
On November 9, 2021, when McMurrey was working in the “pre-roll” room, the filter in one of the grinding machines was removed and found to be “extremely contaminated and filled with ground moldy cannabis product.” The removal of this filter, and the subsequent release of the moldy cannabis dust, caused McMurrey to experience severe difficulty breathing. Her supervisor called an ambulance. McMurrey suffered an asthma attack.
Subsequently, on January 4, 2022, McMurrey was again working in the “pre-roll” area when she again began experiencing serious difficulty breathing and collapsed. Despite treatment in the hospital over three days, McMurrey never regained consciousness, and passed away on January 7, 2022.
The suit maintains that McMurrey was never provided any particularized safety training or information as to the risks of cannabis dust or mold and that Trulieve “knowingly and negligently” exposed workers to a hazardous work environment. It also maintains that the firm’s safety manager did not require that McMurrey be reassigned and failed to impose any safety protocol in response to McMurrey’s first medical incident.
The suit alleges that Trulieve knew or should have known that increased exposure to the dust/mold put workers at risk for developing respiratory and allergic disease, including asthma.
“This is especially true where multiple other workers at the facility reported experiencing allergic and asthmatic responses, including coughing, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, hives and itching, and allergic and asthmatic responses were widespread among workers in the production room and commonly known” to the company and the safety manager, the complaint says.
The complaint further alleges that in addition to failing to adequately ventilate, the HVAC system leaked, causing dry cannabis flower to develop mold. Trulieve and the contractors did nothing to repair the issues, according to the suit.
Trulieve was also responsible for the design and servicing of the grinding machines, which the suit claims were defective because they could be operated without their proper air filters. The suit says the grinding machines were “often operated without air filters and were operated in this manner on the date of the Incident.”
The suit seeks unspecified damages to compensate for the decedent’s injuries, including but not limited to pain and suffering, and mental and emotional distress, economic losses, medical costs and other relief “as may be appropriate.”
OSHA found the company had a written hazard communication plan but it did not address issues around handling cannabis material or allergic reactions to cannabis dust. OSHA initially proposed a $35,219 fine for three citations. Trulieve settled with OSHA this past July for $14,502 over one citation related to classification of hazardous materials.
A November 2023 report by federal and Massachusetts officials found that at the time of the incident, the company had workers’ compensation insurance at the Holyoke plant as required by state law. Early this summer, the company said it would be closing this facility and its three retail shops in the state.
The investigators wrote that this was the first occupational asthma fatality in the U.S. cannabis workforce. They also concluded that McMurrey did not have asthma prior to starting at the cannabis facility in May 2021.
Bruneau’s attorneys had not replied by press time to a question about whether any workers’ compensation claims had been filed over the incident.
Trulieve had not responded to a request for comment by press time.
In an October 2022 statement reported by NBC Boston, Trulieve said it stood by its record of worker health protections at the Holyoke facility.
Trulieve stated that it “installed and at all times operated appropriate industrial air handling systems” and that the Holyoke facility 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 stated that all of the facility’s air quality samples tested by OSHA complied with relevant standards.
The cannabis firm also said it provided personal protection equipment to all employees and that it followed appropriate protocols, including promptly calling 911 and administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), before emergency responders took over.
Trulieve purchased the 150-year old Holyoke property, which was originally a mill and later a furniture restoration business, in 2019 and renovated it over several years. The final space was more than 150,000 square feet, with the majority used for cultivation.
Trulieve currently operates 190 retail dispensaries and over 4 million square feet of cultivation and processing capacity in the U.S.
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