Washington, DC — A significant and growing number of inspectors for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration have developed blood abnormalities caused by exposure to deadly beryllium while on the job, according to an internal OSHA email released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As only a fraction of the exposed inspectors has been tested, final numbers may be higher.
According to an internal email sent to OSHA staff on March 24, 2005 by Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jonathan Snare, ten OSHA employees out of 271 have tested positive for beryllium sensitization. Earlier results reported in January found only three positives.
Beryllium is an extremely toxic metal. Sensitization to beryllium is the precursor for chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a progressive, potentially fatal lung disease.
The testing was prompted by the public protests of a former top OSHA official who was then transferred. Dr. Adam Finkel, the former OSHA Administrator for the six-state Rocky Mountain Region, revealed that several thousand current and former inspectors were unknowingly exposed to beryllium at concentrations up to several hundred times higher than permissible levels. Over Dr. Finkel’s objections, Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw decided to deny recommended blood screenings for employees and to not inform individuals of their exposures. More than 18 months after Dr. Finkel blew the whistle, OSHA finally began a medical monitoring program in April 2004 but only for a portion of exposed compliance officers.
"It looks like OSHA is sleeping through yet another wake-up call,” stated Dr. Finkel, speaking for himself from his new office at Princeton University. “When I protested the decision not to test or inform our employees, I was concerned that one or two percent of them might be sensitized – but now OSHA admits that nearly four percent are.”
The latest test results may understate the extent of the problem because—
- Inspectors were not informed of their specific exposure levels. Thus, the most seriously exposed may remain to be tested;
- OSHA has repeatedly ignored the hundreds of former inspectors and state inspectors who may have been similarly exposed; and
- The preliminary sensitization rate for OSHA inspectors (3.7%) is, according to the Snare email, within the range of beryllium sensitization “of workers in jobs such as nuclear weapons production, machinists and production of beryllium-containing ceramics and alloys.” In other words, OSHA inspectors exposed for only a few hours have sensitization rates equal or greater than those of workers who have spent years in beryllium-laden environments, suggesting that OSHA inspectors may have been subjected to extremely high exposures.
Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao did not respond to a January letter by PEER urging six steps to improve the beryllium testing program, including that OSHA disclose the location of facilities visited by inspectors who became sensitized so that state inspectors, EPA inspectors and the workers inside those facilities could make informed decisions about whether to seek medical testing. Instead, Jonathan Snare sent PEER a letter dated March 24th that avoided any of the suggestions but assured that “We value the health of all OSHA employees.” The next day, Good Friday, OSHA posted a similar statement by Snare.
“OSHA’s actions in this matter belie its stated concern for the health of its own workers,” stated PEER Executive Jeff Ruch. “OSHA has taken only small, grudging steps that completely ignore the health risks to its retirees, its state partners and other workers.”