OSHA Inspectors Test Positive for Beryllium Exposure

After years of belittling the hazards beryllium posed to its inspectors, medical tests have revealed that at least three OSHA employees have developed blood abnormalities associated with beryllium exposure, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune.

The OSHA workers were likely exposed to the widely used metal while conducting safety inspections.

The troubling revelation that some OSHA employees have tested positive for beryllium-related blood abnormalities raises a host of new questions that could plague the agency in the coming months. An OSHA spokesperson declined to comment on any issues related to beryllium exposure until testing is complete.

Environmental group advises OSHA to take action to protect employees

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), made several recommendations to OSHA in a Jan. 17 letter addressed to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao:

  • OSHA should determine how much beryllium the first wave of sensitized workers was exposed to. Ruch argued that it is important to do so, as workers with exposure levels greater than those who are sensitized should be encouraged by OSHA to undergo testing. Even though the agency has beryllium exposure information for its employees, it has thus far not provided it to current employees.
  • OSHA should inform all retired inspectors and all state plan inspectors who were exposed to comparable amounts of beryllium, and offer them the blood test.
  • OSHA should share with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information about sites with high levels of beryllium, so that EPA inspectors who were exposed also can be tested.
  • OSHA must issue within 12 months a proposal to reduce the permissible exposure limit for beryllium.

Former OSHA official 'disappointed to be right' about beryllium

According to PEER, the first results of the screenings show that 1.5 percent of the 200 inspectors examined so far have become sensitized to beryllium. This is precisely the number predicted by Adam Finkel, a former OSHA regional administrator who called upon the agency to offer blood tests years ago -- and alleged he suffered retaliation for doing so.

Finkel, who in an exclusive interview with Occupational Hazards.com emphasized he spoke for himself and not the agency, said in this case he "felt disappointed to be right." He added that the results raise troubling questions about OSHA's effectiveness.

"If we can't protect the people closest to us," he asked, "what does that say about how well we are protecting the other 100 million workers we are supposed to be protecting?"

If the 1.5 percent rate holds up, Finkel said as many as 45 current or former inspectors may already be sensitized to beryllium, since he estimates there have been roughly 3,000 federal and state plan inspectors in the history of the agency.

Layne wasn't concerned about his own beryllium exposure

Finkel filed a whistleblower complaint on the beryllium issue in 2003, charging that he was transferred because he was pushing for beryllium testing that neither the OSHA Administrator at the time, John Henshaw, nor his deputy, Davis Layne, wanted. The agency denied the retaliation claim, and according to the settlement agreement Finkel no longer works in an OSHA program: He now teaches at Princeton University.

Both Layne and Henshaw resigned from OSHA in December. Soon after Layne was charged with overseeing the beryllium program earlier last year, he declared that even though he had been exposed to the hazard he would not be tested for exposure. "I just don't think it's anything that I'm concerned about," he explained at the time.

In addition to its other recommendations, PEER called upon Chao to open an investigation into the 4-year delay before beryllium testing began, and the "campaign of deception that accompanied it."

Layne, who is now executive director of the Voluntary Protection Program Participants' Association, did not return a telephone call.

During his years as a regional administrator, Finkel said he saw dozens of cases of private employers retaliating against workers who complained about health and safety issues.

"OSHA treated me as badly as any private sector employer I've ever seen," Finkel contended. "So how can OSHA be trusted to protect private sector people who complain about health and safety problems?"

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