WASHINGTON -- January 17 -- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is finding that a significant percentage of its inspectors have become sensitized by exposure to beryllium, an extremely toxic metal that can cause an often-fatal lung disease, according to a report in todays Chicago Tribune. OSHA acted to screen inspectors only under pressure from disclosures of one of its own top administrators, charges Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In 2003, Dr. Adam Finkel was removed from his position as OSHA Administrator for the six-state Rocky Mountain Region after protesting an April 2002 decision by Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw to deny recommended blood screening tests for employees and to not inform potentially exposed individuals of their exposures and the value of undergoing a blood test for sensitization. An agency database OSHA created more than 5 years ago indicates that as many as 1,000 current and former compliance officers may have been exposed to beryllium levels up to several hundred times higher than permissible levels.
After 18 months of intransigence following Dr. Finkel going public with his concerns, OSHA finally began a medical monitoring program in April 2004, but only for its current inspectors. The first results from those screenings reportedly show that 1.5 percent of the 200 inspectors examined so far have become sensitized to beryllium. Hundreds of workers in various private industries have already died of chronic beryllium disease (CBD); a fast-progressing, debilitating and potentially fatal lung disease in those whose immune systems have become sensitized following exposure to the substance. The only known cause of CBD is exposure to beryllium dust.
Every American worker who expects OSHA to protect him from hazardous exposures on the job should take a hard look at how the agency has abandoned and deceived its own employees exposed to beryllium, stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Dr. Finkel now has faculty positions at Princeton University and the New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry after receiving a substantial financial settlement in return for withdrawing a whistleblower reprisal complaint against the agency. CBD can be a fast-moving disease and we hope no sensitized OSHA employee has progressed to CBD itself during the years of delay after the issue was first raised.
Assistant Secretary Henshaw and Deputy Assistant Secretary R. Davis Layne, the two officials most responsible for the delays, resigned this December, before news of the test results leaked. PEER today sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who is supposed to oversee OSHA, asking her to determine why it took so long to test inspectors after the risk was known and why testing has not been extended to former federal inspectors, as well as active and retired inspectors who work for state OSHA programs, who may have similar or greater risks of exposure.
The Labor Departments continuing refusal at this late date to even inform state and former federal inspectors of the need for testing borders on criminal neglect, added Ruch, pointing to the argument of David Zeigler, director of OSHA administrative programs, who stated in April 2002 that inspectors who no longer work at OSHA should not be apprised because of the bad press we would get if we informed but did not offer to reimburse them. The Labor Department could pay for a comprehensive beryllium screening program covering all at-risk inspectors out of the money OSHA lays out for executive bonuses, Ruch concluded.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals, working to protect the environment.