Brush sued by contract workers

February 15, 2000

Area construction workers yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Brush Wellman beryllium company, demanding that the firm pay for medical testing for up to 7,000 building trade employees who may have been exposed to unsafe levels of toxic beryllium dust.

"We have a right to know if we have been affected,'' said Joseph Szenderski, one of the workers suing.

Seven current and retired construction workers filed the lawsuit on behalf of themselves and a class of 4,000 to 7,000 Toledo-area building trade employees.

The workers allege that in the last five decades, Brush Wellman knowingly exposed thousands of contract workers to unsafe levels of beryllium at its plant near Elmore. The beryllium firm, the suit states, did not adequately warn workers about the hazards of the metal nor provide them with necessary safety devices.

In fact, the suit states, the workers did not know about the high beryllium dust levels until The Blade published a series of articles about beryllium in March. The series documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the American beryllium industry, including overexposing workers to beryllium dust.

The suit wants Brush to pay for blood tests so workers can determine whether they have contracted beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's dust. Brush has provided blood tests for its own employees, identifying numerous affected workers. But the company has refused to offer tests to thousands of contract workers, the suit states.

After The Blade's series, several contracting firms pulled their employees out of the Brush plant and started paying for blood tests for the workers. So far, four of roughly 165 contract workers tested have been diagnosed as having beryllium disease, said Al Segur, executive secretary of the Northwestern Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council. He said he hopes these numbers are an anomaly. "Because if those are real numbers, that's very scary.''

One of the four contract workers with beryllium disease showed blood abnormalities after working at the Brush plant only two days, said George Gerken, a Toledo attorney representing workers in the class-action suit.

The suit covers current or ex-members of the 26 local unions that constitute the Northwestern Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council who worked for contractors at the Elmore plant any time between its 1953 opening and Dec. 31, 1999. The suit was filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, where Brush Wellman has headquarters.

Brush Wellman declined to comment. In a statement, attorney Thomas Clare said the company has not had a chance to review the allegations and it is the firm's policy not to discuss pending lawsuits.

Brush is America's leading producer of beryllium, a strong, lightweight material used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries. At least 65 current or former Brush workers have contracted beryllium disease at the Elmore plant. An estimated 1,200 people have contracted the illness nationwide since the 1940s.

Among the legal team representing the workers in the class-action suit is Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, a Cincinnati firm that has been involved in numerous high-profile cases. These include the Dow Corning breast-implant litigation, the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the Union Carbide chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India.

Attorneys file a class-action suit when it would be impractical to file thousands of individual complaints. A handful of named plaintiffs represent the larger group, and if the lawsuit succeeds, everyone in the class benefits. In this case, the seven named plaintiffs have all done contract work at the Brush plant. They are, according to the suit:

Mr. Szenderski of Toledo, a member of the Iron Workers Local Union No. 55; Daniel Martin of Oregon, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union No. 8; Larry Strang of Maumee, a member of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union No. 50; Michael Fincher of Millbury, a member of the Roofers Local Union No. 134, and Hubert Mays of Sylvania, Jack Wilson of Toledo, and Reginald Hohenberger of Perrysburg, all members of the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union No. 33.

The suit states: "Employees of contractors working at the Elmore plant often had high exposures to beryllium, including at times they performed such maintenance tasks as replacing ventilation systems, removing duct work, changing baghouses, and so forth."

The suit states that the plant, which is 20 miles southeast of Toledo, has never had all of its operations at all times at or below air safety limits. "Brush knew more of the dangers than they told us," said Mr. Wilson, a sheet metal worker. "When I worked there in the 1960s, they told you virtually nothing. And there were very few safeguards.'' He said contract employees frequently did more dangerous work than Brush employees. "We worked on the dirtier parts of the plant," he said.

The suit seeks periodic medical evaluations, including physicals, blood tests, and follow-up exams. Ongoing testing is important, attorneys for the workers said, because beryllium disease has a latency period up to 40 years. That means people may develop the illness 40 years after their last exposures to beryllium dust. Mr. Wilson said he would like workers to be given annual blood tests for the remainder of their lives. "I know that I am healthy now, but who knows?''

Besides the medical testing, the suit seeks punitive damages in an amount to be determined.

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