Dirty Dozen list: Cannabis plant bars protective masks; Worker dies
Holyoke, Mass., a city of roughly 40,000 people just north of Springfield, has become the center of cannabis-related media coverage following the death of 27-year-old Trulieve worker Lorna McMurrey. Trulieve made the Dirty Dozen list after her death. | Adobe Stock

HOLYOKE, Mass.—No worker should have to die from inhaling marijuana dust. But that’s what happened to Lorna McMurrey, 27, in a Holyoke, Mass., cannabis plant, her cousin says.

Because McMurrey’s death was “completely preventable,” as her cousin Alicia Bounds, adds, her asthmatic fatal heart attack landed her employer, Trulieve Cannabis Corp., on the annual “Dirty Dozen” list. Those are the firms whom the labor-backed National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) spotlights for rampant refusal to protect their workers on the job.

“Nobody seems to know why” Trulieve “took the masks” away from McMurrey and denied them to other workers, too, says Bounds. With no protective masks, McMurrey inhaled marijuana dust. She never suffered from asthma before, but her first asthmatic attack landed her in the hospital on a ventilator. When she went back to work, Trulieve wouldn’t even let her bring protective gear from home. The second asthmatic attack, three months later, killed her.

Cora James visits her daughter Jessica’s final resting place. Her daughter, Jessica James, was crushed to death under a forklift because FedEx in Memphis had not repaired a ramp. As a result, FedEx has made the Dirty Dozen list. | Andrea Morales/MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism

“They’re making money. That’s all they care about,” Bounds says of the cannabis company. But Trulieve wasn’t the only firm on NACOSH’s list where a worker died horribly:

  • Construction worker Antelmo Ramirez, 47, collapsed in 98-degree heat while helping build a monster Tesla factory in Austin, Texas. It was badly ventilated. At death, his temperature was over 106 degrees. Tesla also gives out fake certificates saying workers completed job safety and health training. Controversial right-wing entrepreneur Elon Musk owns and controls Tesla.
  • Jessica James, 32, was one of three workers who died in separate accidents inside FedEx’s Memphis, Tenn., warehouse. Her forklift overturned, crushing her to death, in February 2022, when a defective ramp collapsed. FedEx, notorious for exploiting workers and hating unions, paid a $26,000 fine to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“They had a meeting and said they could not afford to fix the ramp,” Cora James, Jessica’s mother, told NACOSH in its 36-page report. “I guess if all they have to pay when somebody dies is $20,000, they come out cheaper keeping the ramps.”

  • Amazon logged seven deaths in its warehouses in 2022. Its serious injury rate was 6.6/100 workers, double that of the industry as a whole. The monster firm, owned by one of the world’s richest people, Jeff Bezos, employs 36% of all warehouse workers but accounts for 53% of warehouse worker injuries. Amazon’s on the Dirty Dozen list for the fourth time in six years.

NACOSH issues its Dirty Dozen list yearly to mark Workers Memorial Day, April 28. That’s the day workers nationwide pause to honor colleagues killed, injured, and made permanently ill on the job due to their bosses’ indifference, or worse.

Memorial events, including demonstrations and teach-ins, ran from April 23-30. They highlight not just deaths on the job but other instances of firms treating workers as, literally, disposable.

Antelmo Rodriguez died in 98-degree heat at the giant Tesla factory in Austin, Texas, making Tesla eligible for the Dirty Dozen list.

The latest federal figures show the death toll on the job in 2021 rose to 5,190, or 3.6 workers per 100,000, and the death rate for Latino workers jumped from four per 100,000 in 2020 to 4.5/100,000 in 2021. NACOSH didn’t stop with 2021. The latest death it cited was two months ago.

This year’s Dirty Dozen also includes a three-way combination of a construction owner, contractor, and subcontractor on one job in North Carolina, where three Latino workers died when their scaffolding collapsed and four big slaughterhouse firms were exposed for illegally employing child labor.

The nation’s Class I railroads as a group landed on the Dirty Dozen list, too, led by Norfolk Southern. NACOSH cited the carriers’ hazard to workers and communities exposed by the East Palestine, Ohio, Norfolk Southern freight rail wreck on February 3.

NACOSH’s study also listed the March 6, 2023, death of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen/Teamsters Division 607 President Louis Shuster, a conductor killed when a dump truck collided with his Norfolk Southern train in Cleveland.

BLE&T Legislative Director Vince Verna didn’t mention Shuster’s death, but he had special scorn for the freight railroads’ Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) business model, designed to cut the number of workers, cut corners on safety, lengthen trains and put ever-growing profits in the pockets of Wall Street financiers whose dollars back the rail carriers (see separate rail story).

“PSR is sort of mob movie mentality,” Verna said. The rail firms “slash and burn, to cut corners and cut people.”

The list also includes Sonoma County Winegrowers in California. Owners stationed a pesticide-spewing vehicle near where workers picked grapes. The chemicals and the high heat often sicken workers, grape picker Annabelle Garcia told NACOSH’S April 26 briefing.

There were 7 deaths of workers at Amazon this year placing that company too on the Dirty Dozen list. | John Locher/AP

One woman, overcome by pesticides and heat, was taken off the job, but not to a hospital, co-worker Annabelle Garcia said through a translator. Instead, the woman was put under a shade tree until relatives came for her at 4 pm that day. She survived but hasn’t returned to the job.

In Sonoma County, the vineyard workers fought back—by organizing with the United Farm Workers and by exposing the vineyard’s front group, WISE, which opposed county safety measures.  The Sonoma County Board sided with the workers and established new vineyard safety standards and a $3 million hazardous duty fund. The UFW contract includes protections against excessive heat.

But killing a 27-year-old by not giving her a protective mask at work? And denying masks to other workers as well?

Only two months after McMurrey started, Trulieve “took away paper masks” it had distributed to workers since the coronavirus plague began, Bounds said. “She didn’t have any pre-existing conditions, but in November she collapsed at work” from asthma.

NACOSH’s report includes a picture of a hospitalized McMurrey, her face covered by the ventilator. She died a month before her 28th birthday in 2021.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.