First Recorded Occupational Asthma Fatality in U.S. Cannabis Industry Occurs in Massachusetts

November 17th, 2023 Safety & Education
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Before we delve into the article, we want to address our Michigan readers directly. While the incident reported below occurred in Massachusetts, we believe it carries significant relevance for everyone involved in the cannabis industry, including those in Michigan. The tragic event serves as a crucial reminder of the potential health risks associated with working in this rapidly expanding sector, particularly for individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma. It's a poignant warning that highlights the importance of workplace safety and health precautions across the cannabis industry, regardless of state boundaries. With Michigan's burgeoning cannabis market, this story is not just news from another state; it's a vital lesson in ensuring the safety and well-being of our workforce here at home.

The U.S. cannabis industry recently faced a significant tragedy, marking the first reported occupational asthma death. A 27-year-old worker in Massachusetts succumbed to a fatal asthma attack in January 2022, a concerning development highlighted in a federal report released on Thursday. This incident underscores the increasing health risks in the burgeoning U.S. cannabis sector, particularly regarding respiratory conditions like asthma, exacerbated by the rapid growth following state-level legalizations.

The federal report, emphasizing missed prevention opportunities, noted the critical need for enhanced workplace exposure management, medical surveillance, and adherence to established asthma guidelines in the cannabis industry. The importance of promptly addressing new or worsening asthma symptoms among workers in cannabis facilities was stressed as a key measure to avoid similar tragedies.

This case was detailed in a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encapsulating the findings from a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection. The investigation encompassed a thorough worksite exposure assessment, interviews with coworkers and next of kin, medical record analysis, and collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

While the report doesn't reveal the identity of the worker or the facility, OSHA filings from last year indicated that an employee at Trulieve's Holyoke location, identified as Lorna McMurrey, 27, suffered a fatal asthma attack while packaging cannabis pre-rolls.

Studies cited in the report identify multiple respiratory hazards in cannabis cultivation and production, such as microbial agents, plant allergens, and chemicals including pesticides. The cannabis plant itself can pose specific allergenic risks.

The incident comes amid a surge in recreational marijuana legalization across the U.S., with almost half the states now permitting adult recreational use. This growth has sparked calls for enhanced safety measures in the marijuana industry, ensuring the protection of workers and the public.

Scott Gagnon, a Maine-based cannabis industry watchdog, views this incident as a crucial warning for lawmakers to implement stricter regulations around the cannabis industry. Conversely, Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, asserts that the cannabis industry aims for utmost safety, stressing that such incidents are less likely in regulated environments where businesses adhere to standard workplace safety regulations.

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