The Marijuana Regulators of Mass. began investigating a Holyoke facility over safety complaints. Then a worker collapsed and died in a dust-filled room.
That criticism is intensifying now, as those who knew McMurrey are demanding answers about whether Trulieve — and state regulators who have received prior complaints about the Holyoke facility — are responsible for his death.
In June, federal workplace safety regulators attributed the death to “occupational asthma due to exposure to ground cannabis dust” and said other workers at the Holyoke facility were face the same conditions. But the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation did not find that Trulieve failed to protect its employees. The agency fined the company $32,200 for failing to train workers on the hazard and failing to maintain a hazardous materials log at the production facility.
One of the nation’s largest marijuana operators, Trulieve, is based in Florida, where he was involved in an unrelated corruption scandal. The company disputes OSHA’s findings in the still-open Holyoke case, and a spokesperson said the agency verified dust levels at the facility were “well within acceptable ranges.”
Now the state has revealed Trulieve’s Holyoke operation was under official scrutiny for potential safety issues even before McMurrey’s death.
A spokeswoman for the state Cannabis Control Board said Friday that the agency launched an investigation into the facility in the fall of 2021 after receiving complaints from workers, and that the investigation into those complaints and January’s death was ongoing.
“The commission takes the safety and well-being of [marijuana workers]patients and consumers seriously, and has been and will continue to coordinate with public health officials to understand all contributing circumstances,” she wrote.
The statement came a day after the commission’s new chairman, Shannon O’Brien, and commissioner Bruce Stebbins, who was appointed in December 2020, told reporters they had heard of the death of McMurrey until September, when local activist Mike Crawford released OSHA’s findings.
This prompted Trulieve to insist that he notified the National Cannabis Commission within 24 hours of the January incident, as required by agency regulations, and sent additional follow-up notifications when the OSHA inspectors visited the Holyoke facility.
The commission’s spokeswoman said Friday that the company notified the state agency of McMurrey’s death several days later, on Jan. 10. the commissioners vote on whether to accept their findings and issue any sanctions.
“The first time I heard about it was when I read it in the paper,” O’Brien said Thursday. “I think it’s an issue that the commissioners talk to the staff about.”
It is unclear why the commission’s investigation took longer than nine months; O’Brien on Thursday did not directly respond to questions about when it would be completed, saying only that the investigation “was happening right now” and that the agency had a responsibility “to ensure that the conditions of work are well maintained and safe.”
Dave Bruneau, McMurrey’s stepfather, said McMurrey asked him to bring him respirators from his job as a mechanic several weeks before he died.
“She said the air was full of dust,” Bruneau said in an interview. “You could see it and it would stick to your skin and everything. I myself have COPD after working [in dusty environments] thirty years, and I know what it’s like to be exposed. You don’t want to suck particles and stuff into your lungs. I was really worried.
Danny Carson, a former supervisor at the Holyoke plant who hired McMurrey the summer before he died, said Trulieve only provided workers with medical-style paper face masks. He said the multi-state jars conglomerate failed to properly train workers and created what he called a culture of silence in which employees were afraid to speak up about safety issues. He said he resigned in August 2021.
Trulieve employees “know that asking to take five minutes out and get some fresh air can mean you get fired, yelled at, or feel bad, like you’re letting the team down,” Carson said.
The company and commission regulators declined to comment on specific details of the incident, citing open investigations. A spokesperson for the Hampden County District Attorney said McMurrey’s death was not criminally investigated.
Bruneau said McMurrey, at first, was thrilled to work in the cannabis industry, which offered both stable employment and the opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues.
“My heart fell into my shoes when the hospital nurse told me she was brain dead from lack of oxygen,” Bruneau said emotionally. “I want people to know what happened to him, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”