U.S. inspects Brush plant
July 14, 1999
Safety officials have begun a surprise, detailed inspection of the local Brush Wellman beryllium plant, where dozens of workers have contracted an often-fatal lung disease.
"We want to do a very thorough job to ensure that the employees out there are being protected,'' said Arnis Andersons, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Toledo area office.
Up to four inspectors have been at the beryllium plant outside Elmore, taking air samples to determine whether workers are being overexposed to the metal's toxic dust.
The investigation, triggered by a worker's complaint, marks only the second full OSHA inspection of the plant in 20 years.
The inquiry began June 29 and could take weeks to finish, Mr. Andersons said.
Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said yesterday that the company is cooperating.
"Our position always has been to deal with the complaint and work with OSHA to provide information and whatever backup they need to complete their inspection," he said.
Victim advocate Theresa Norgard welcomes the inspection.
"But my concern is that this is not just a one-time deal [by OSHA] to look good," said Mrs. Norgard, whose husband, Dave, contracted beryllium disease at the plant. She called for regular inspections, plus OSHA recommendations on how to make the plant safer.
Since the 1950s, at least 53 workers at the 780-employee plant have contracted beryllium disease. Numerous others have abnormal blood tests - a sign that they may develop the illness.
In March, The Blade began a series detailing how the U.S. defense establishment and the beryllium industry sacrificed workers' lives to produce the strategic metal. The articles documented how workers at several beryllium plants - including the Elmore facility, 20 miles southeast of Toledo - for years have been exposed to levels of beryllium dust over the legal limit.
The series has sparked numerous actions, including a congressional investigation.
OSHA's safety enforcement, the articles noted, has been virtually nonexistent. Years have gone by without inspectors setting foot in the Elmore plant. The last complete inspection was in 1993, when inspectors found 11 violations and fined Brush $12,350. A partial investigation in 1997 resulted in one violation and no fine.
OSHA officials have said not enough inspectors are available to properly monitor all of the workplaces in the country.
Mr. Andersons said the Elmore plant is a major concern, but he cannot simply order more inspections. Under OSHA policy, inspectors generally only investigate when they receive a formal complaint, when there has been a fatal accident, or when three or more workers have been hospitalized.
To target Brush Wellman as a matter of policy, he said, would be to risk a lawsuit.
"We just can't single out an employer," he said.
And Mr. Andersons said by law he could not disclose details of the complaint that prompted the inspection. He said only that it was received recently, after The Blade series, and contained information about high dust exposures.
Inspectors, he said, will take extra precaution to protect themselves from the dust: They will wear special hoods with pumps supplying fresh air.
"We want to make sure that in all environments [of the plant] our people are protected," he said.
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