OSHA Beryllium Test Results Higher Than Some Anticipated

March 28, 2005
Ten current OSHA inspectors -- 3.7 percent of those tested so far -- have developed a sensitization to beryllium, a widely used, toxic metal that can cause lung and skin disease.

OSHA, which began offering voluntary beryllium testing for its workers in 2004, says that 271 inspectors had been tested as of March 15. According to the agency, 31 employees who initially expressed interest in being tested for beryllium sensitization had yet to schedule appointments as of that date.

For those inspectors who tested positive, OSHA's Office of Occupational Medicine provided them with "in-depth counseling" on further medical evaluation and other issues such as workers' compensation rights and procedures, according to the agency. The agency says those who were tested were informed of their individual results as soon as they were received.

While OSHA cautions that a positive test does not imply that one has or will develop chronic beryllium disease -- a progressive, potentially fatal lung disease -- Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Jonathan Snare explained to agency employees in a memo that the agency's exposure levels fall within the same range of workers involved in the production of nuclear weapons and beryllium-containing ceramics and alloys.

That concerns observers such as Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who bemoans that OSHA "keeps assuring us they have the situation under control."

The similarity of inspectors' results to exposure rates in beryllium-laden work environments -- despite the fact that OSHA inspectors likely were exposed to beryllium for only a few hours -- suggests that OSHA inspectors may have been subjected to extremely high beryllium exposures, according to PEER.

"For [OSHA inspectors] to have the same exposure levels for people who used to work in nuclear weapons plants is significant," Ruch said.

Since 1984, OSHA has conducted approximately 4,000 inspections in which sampling for beryllium was conducted, according to the agency. Of 13,407 air samples taken in those inspections, 147, or 1.1 percent, exceeded OSHA's current permissible exposure limit of not more than 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour time-weighted average or not more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air for more than 30 minutes.

Latest Results Higher Than Predicted by Finkel

This has become a potentially thorny issue for OSHA. Former OSHA regional administrator Adam Finkel slapped the agency with a whistleblower complaint in 2003, alleging that he was removed from his position after protesting former OSHA chief John Henshaw's decision to not offer beryllium screening tests to employees. OSHA denied the retaliation claim.

OSHA, in its March 24 press release, tried to emphasize its proactive stance toward the issue. The agency said it began investigating the need to test its inspectors for beryllium exposure in 2000 and subsequently began work on a "pilot beryllium medical monitoring program."

PEER's Ruch says that's "flat-out dishonest."

"The decision was made to not do anything," Ruch said. "… For them to say they were working on this all the time -- they were working on this in ways that are imperceptible."

OSHA in August 2004 began offering voluntary testing to inspectors who may have been exposed to beryllium. The agency says it did not establish a minimum exposure level for inspectors to qualify for testing, and Snare said the testing program still is available to any workers who want to be tested.

"We will continue our longstanding policy to protect and monitor the health of our compliance staff," Snare said.

One of PEER's many beefs with the agency's approach to handling this issue is that OSHA has not extended the offer to former inspectors. Finkel, when employed by OSHA, claimed that several thousand current and former inspectors had been exposed unknowingly to beryllium at concentrations up to several hundred times higher than permissible levels.

He estimated that 1.5 percent of current or former inspectors may already be sensitized to beryllium, a prediction that seemed prescient after a January Chicago Tribune article revealed that at least three OSHA employees -- 1.5 percent of 200 -- had tested positive for beryllium sensitization.

Finkel's reaction to the latest test results -- which he says indicate a more pervasive problem them he first estimated -- was, "It looks like OSHA is sleeping through yet another wake-up call."

PEER Questions Timing of Announcement

After the Chicago Tribune article in January, PEER fired off a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao asking the agency to take more aggressive steps to improve its beryllium testing program. Among its recommendations, PEER urged OSHA to disclose the location of facilities visited by inspectors who became sensitized, so that state and EPA inspectors and workers at those facilities could seek medical testing.

OSHA responded to PEER with a letter from Snare detailing its beryllium medical testing program and assuring that "OSHA is concerned about the health of all American workers, including our own safety and health professionals."

The letter was faxed to PEER on March 24, Ruch says, the same day the agency issued a press release with the latest beryllium testing results. Ruch calls the timing -- the day before Good Friday -- a deliberate attempt by the agency to "mask bad news."

"Putting [the press release] out so close to Good Friday is a way for them to say they're forthcoming but in the least possible forthcoming way," Ruch said.

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