Washington, DC -- Reversing a long-standing intransigence, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now offering blood tests to hundreds of its inspectors who have been exposed to beryllium, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Beryllium is an extremely toxic metal that can carry 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 dust.
Last year, Dr. Adam Finkel was removed from his position as OSHA Administrator for the six-state Rocky Mountain Region after protesting a decision by Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw to deny recommended blood screening tests and to veto informing potentially exposed individuals of the findings. An agency database indicates that as many as 500 current and former compliance officers may have been exposed to beryllium levels up to several hundred times higher than permissible levels.
Since Dr. Finkel went public with his concerns, OSHA officials have falsely reassured employees that a program was already in place ("the accusation that we have not provided medical surveillance for compliance officers who may have been exposed to beryllium…is completely false," according to one agency email). In October, OSHA told the Washington Post "implementation of the new [testing] policy is already underway." Belying those earlier claims, OSHA is now telling employees "the medical monitoring program will be implemented April 15 2004."
"OSHA's decision to offer testing completely vindicates Dr. Finkel," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Dr. Finkel now has another position in OSHA and received a substantial financial settlement in return for withdrawing a reprisal complaint against the agency. "After much dissembling, OSHA is finally admitting that this is a serious public health issue. But public employees should not have to cast a profile in courage, as Dr. Finkel did, to induce a federal agency to protect its own workers, particularly the agency whose mission is protect American workers from these very hazards."
Notwithstanding the decision to test, OSHA's program does not --
- Target those with the highest risks and instead offers testing to nearly all the people who likely had the lowest exposures without providing key information about severity of exposure. This is like telling every DC resident that there is lead in the water when you already know which houses have the highest levels;
- Inform or offer testing to the approximately 1000 retired federal inspectors or to the active and retired inspectors who work for the 23 states who have their own OSHA programs. The retirees may have had more exposure than their active counterparts; and
- Address the much larger group of private-sector workers in beryllium containing workplaces (such as foundries and dental laboratories) whose employers will not have to offer testing unless OSHA revises its 50-year-old beryllium regulation.
"OSHA inspectors deserve better than the treatment they have received," added Ruch who pointed out that during the years that OSHA has delayed, the U.S. Department of Energy has tested nearly 25,000 of its people. "CBD can be a fast-moving disease and we hope no one turns out sensitized or diseased who could have learned of this four years ago when the issue was first raised."