OSHA Official Urges Agency Release Beryllium Exposure Data

More than 2 months after OSHA disclosed that 10 of 271 inspectors tested are now sensitized to the highly toxic metal beryllium, putting them at risk for an incurable and potentially fatal lung disease, the agency is still resisting calls that it release the concentrations of beryllium found at each inspection where a sensitized employee conducted sampling.

An OSHA official, whose name was withheld by the agency, explained in a written statement that, "the data available is limited to sampling and inspection history, not exposure in the traditional industrial hygiene sense."

In a May 13 letter to the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that is highly critical of OSHA's response to the beryllium issue, OSHA whistleblower Adam Finkel, Sc.D., CIH, wrote that, "it is crucial that OSHA release immediately the exposure histories of the 10 sensitized employees, which it can do using data in its possession with a trivial amount of effort."

After settling a whistleblower lawsuit with OSHA, Finkel now teaches at Princeton University; although he is still on the OSHA payroll. Finkel said he does not speak for the agency.

OSHA denies Finkel's allegation that it retaliated against him for going public with his demand that OSHA inspectors be offered blood tests for beryllium sensitization.

"Ridiculous," is what several other prominent industrial hygienists and physicians called OSHA's argument that its sampling data is not "exposure in the traditional industrial hygiene sense," according to Finkel's letter.

The information OSHA declines to release offers a "fantastic scientific opportunity to define the lower levels of exposures and their relationship to beryllium sensitization," according to

Peter Lurie, MD, MPH, deputy director of Public Citizen's health research group. Lurie believes, "The data are at a level of detail that exceeds what we usually have in occupational health studies."

Marc Kolanz, an industrial hygienist at Brush Wellman, a major supplier of beryllium, disagrees with Lurie and Finkel about the usefulness of the data and doesn't think OSHA should release it.

"An OSHA inspector would put samplers on several people, and the inspectors would not be with them the whole time," said Kolanz. "The inspectors might do safety work or paper work so whatever result they got on the worker would not be representative of the inspectors."

Although this line of reasoning would suggest the inspector would have even less beryllium exposure than the worker sampling data, rendering beryllium far more toxic than previous consensus estimations, Kolanz disputed this conclusion. "Logically, you would hope it would be less," he said. "But that's assuming they were sampling the right people in the right places, so you can't assume the inspector had more or less exposure to beryllium than the workers sampled."

In an e-mail response to Kolanz's assertion, Finkel wrote, "I agree completely with Mr. Kolanz: you can't assume our inspectors necessarily got either less or more exposure than the workers they followed during the shift. That makes the sample result an 'unbiased estimator,' which is what epidemiologists hope they are occasionally lucky enough to have available."

Finkel v. OSHA

After OSHA disclosed that 10 inspectors tested positive for beryllium sensitivity, Reps. George Miller, D-Calif. and Major Owens, D-N.Y., wrote Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Jonathan Snare, asking him to explain OSHA's handling of the matter.

In his March 24 letter to Miller, Snare confirmed that OSHA has no plans to test retired inspectors who were exposed to beryllium and that the agency is still "in the early stages" of beryllium rulemaking, but he pointed out the agency provided five beryllium information brochures to its current employees and that a medical officer from OSHA's office of occupational medicine has contacted each of the ten OSHA employees who tested positive.

"To the best of our knowledge," wrote Snare, "no OSHA personnel have chronic beryllium disease."

Finkel's six-page letter came in response to the congressmen's request that Finkel comment on Snare's answers. Finkel's May 13 letter is laced with harsh criticism as well as charges surrounding the beryllium affair. For example, Finkel writes:

  • A government attorney who investigated Finkel's beryllium whistleblower case told him privately he believed that some or all of the senior OSHA officials interviewed had testified falsely in their depositions;
  • Finkel and his attorneys obtained e-mails among four senior OSHA officials documenting that, "they knew precisely what Mr. Snare now alleges they did not;"
  • OSHA is "callous in the extreme," for refusing to test or even inform retired inspectors about their previous exposures to beryllium;
  • OSHA's continued reluctance to test inspectors and update its 56-year old permissible exposure limit on beryllium are "symptomatic of the agency's cavalier attitude about chronic health exposures."

Finkel, a former director of OSHA's health standards directorate, argues that even though more than 90 percent of work-related premature deaths in the U.S. stem from chronic health problems, OSHA continues to devote at least 75 percent of its enforcement, analytical and outreach resources to safety issues.

The complete text of Finkel's letter is available here. The text for Snare's March 24 is available here.

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