OSHA to Test Its Own Inspectors Exposed to Beryllium

Many current federal OSHA employees are now eligible for blood tests to determine if they are at risk for contracting chronic beryllium disease (CBD), according to documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Beryllium is a toxic metal that can carry a high risk of disease following low exposure; beryllium exposure is the only known cause of CBD, a potentially fatal lung disease. While there is no cure for CBD, early detection can aid treatment of the disease.

Last year, Adam Finkel was removed from his position as regional administrator for OSHA's Rocky Mountain region after publicly protesting that OSHA Administrator John Henshaw was denying beryllium blood tests to exposed agency workers.

In its only previous public comment on the issue, an Oct. 9, 2003 written statement, the agency countered that it already had "a medical monitoring program that provides for agency-paid special testing, such as beryllium." Some agency employees were tested for beryllium under that program, according to the statement, but no numbers were given and OSHA also indicated it "has been working for some time on revising and expanding its testing policy for employees who are candidates for beryllium testing."

OSHA provided no further details about the program until its recent announcement that medical monitoring would begin April 15, 2004.

After going public with his criticism, Finkel was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he filed a reprisal complaint that was recently settled.

"OSHA's decision to offer testing completely vindicates Dr. Finkel," asserted PEER executive director Jeff Ruch in a statement. According to Ruch, Finkel received a "substantial financial settlement in return for withdrawing a reprisal complaint against the agency."

An OSHA official declined to release details of the cost of the settlement, saying only "the action has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties."

Despite the agency's decision to offer blood tests, according to PEER the OSHA program fails to address two other issues:

  • It does not target inspectors with the highest risks, but instead offers testing to everyone without informing those who have had the greatest exposure to beryllium;
  • The program does not offer testing to approximately 1,000 retired federal inspectors or active and retired inspectors in states with their own OSHA programs.

It will be up to OSHA inspectors to decide for themselves whether they want to take the blood test. The Chicago Tribune has reported that the person charged with overseeing the program, Davis Layne, OSHA's deputy assistant secretary, has decided not to be tested even though he has been exposed to beryllium and is therefore eligible.

"I just don't think it's anything that I'm concerned about," said Layne.

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