HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is calling on the cannabis industry to improve the health and safety of employees when it comes to workplace asthma following the 2022 death of a West Springfield woman.

A report released Thursday by the MassDPH explained the investigation into the death of a cannabis worker in Holyoke and outlines steps the industry can take to prevent these work-related asthma incidents.

The death of Lorna McMurrey of West Springfield on January 7, 2022 is the first known occupational asthma death in the U.S. cannabis industry. The 27-year-old woman suffered an asthma attack on January 4 while working inside the cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Holyoke. The woman was working with dried, ground cannabis and became short of breath, eventually stopped breathing and lost consciousness. She was hospitalized but died three days later.

An investigation led by the Massachusetts FACE Program discovered that exposure to the cannabis plant and ground cannabis at work contributed to the woman developing an allergy and later asthma. Investigators say the victim did not have asthma before starting in the industry in May of 2021. Ultimately, the medical examiner determined the woman’s cause of death was “brain death, due to cardiac arrest (12 hours prior), due to respiratory arrest (spanning four days), due to presumed severe asthma attack.”

Massachusetts FACE investigators determined the following unrecognized hazards as the main contributors to her death:

  • Failure to recognize ground cannabis as a potential occupational respiratory hazard
  • Failure to adequately control the spread of airborne cannabis dust
  • Lack of a comprehensive safety and health program and overall safety training

While this is the only known asthma death in the U.S. cannabis industry, there have been other cases of Massachusetts cannabis workers reporting respiratory diseases. Cannabis workers are exposed to various occupational respiratory hazards, including cannabis dust, mold, volatile organic compounds, pollen, bacterial endotoxins, pesticides, soil components, and cleaning disinfectants. Massachusetts has more than 22,000 cannabis workers.

“The legalized cannabis industry in Massachusetts is relatively new and the impact on the health and safety of workers demands our careful attention,” said Public Health Commissioner Robert Goldstein, MD, PhD. “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.”  

Following the report, new recommendations have been released on what employers can do to prevent workplace asthma incidents in the cannabis industry.

  • Assess and control all hazardous materials in the workplace
  • Ensure workers are properly trained about hazardous materials
  • Develop a comprehensive safety and health program that addresses hazard recognition, avoidance of unsafe conditions, and proper use of equipment
  • Implement a medical surveillance program to monitor employee’s health
  • Equipment manufacturers should adopt and implement the concept of identifying potential hazards associated with equipment and then eliminate these hazards through design changes
  • Industry licensing agencies in Massachusetts should consider how they can further support the health and safety of cannabis industry workers

Approximately 17 percent of new on-set asthma cases in adults are connected to exposure at work. In Massachusetts, there are an estimated 200,000 adults who have work-related asthma, according to data from the MassDPH.

MassDPH also urges healthcare providers to talk to their patients with worsening allergic symptoms about what they do for work, perform allergy testing, recommend a change in jobs if conditions worsen, and report work-related asthma cases to the DPH.

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