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For Immediate Release: Oct 09, 2003
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

OSHA BLOCKS TESTING OF INSPECTORS EXPOSED TO BERYLLIUM

Top Official Calls for Investigation; Seeks Whistleblower Status


Washington, DC -- Disregarding the recommendations of its own medical and scientific staff, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is refusing to order blood tests for hundreds of its active and retired inspectors who may have been exposed to the toxic metal beryllium, according to a whistleblower disclosure filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) on behalf of an OSHA Regional Administrator.

Citing an agency database indicating that as many as 500 current and former compliance officers have taken samples containing beryllium, Dr. Adam Finkel, OSHA Administrator for the six-state Rocky Mountain Region, is asking the U.S. Office to Special Counsel to determine the extent of risk facing inspectors and their families. Dr. Finkel acted after Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw blocked recommended blood screening tests and vetoed informing potentially exposed individuals of the findings.

Beryllium is an extremely toxic metal that carries a high risk of disease following even very low exposure. Hundreds have already died of chronic beryllium disease (CBD); a fast-progressing and potentially fatal lung disease, the only known cause of which is exposure to beryllium. A blood test used by industry and the U.S. Department of Energy can detect whether a person has been sensitized to beryllium, a necessary condition for the onset of CBD. The test costs approximately $150 per application.

Beginning in 1999, OSHA scientists developed a protocol for testing active and retired inspectors. In March 2001, the agency rejected a recommendation to set up a pilot-testing program for beryllium. Then, in April 2002, Assistant Secretary Henshaw announced that the agency would not even provide information or counseling to potentially affected agency employees and retirees. As of this October, despite repeated entreaties, no inspectors have been tested nor has the agency issued health warnings. Each month of continued delay for beryllium-sensitized persons increases the risks for contracting CBD.

"OSHA is supposed to be setting appropriate workplace health standards yet it is failing to take the prudent steps required to protect its own inspectors from a lethal lung disease," commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that OSHA recently spent more money than it would cost to test all exposed inspectors on consultants and focus groups to develop its new slogan -- "Safety and Health Add Value." "It is both outrageous and ironic that the very professionals whose job is to ensure safe workplaces themselves face needless occupational risks due to bureaucratic indifference."

The Office of Special Counsel must rule on the merits of Dr. Finkel's disclosure in 15 working days. If OSC finds validity it then will oversee an investigation by the Secretary of Labor.

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Read Dr. Finkel's Disclosure to the Office of Special Counsel