Beryllium fears on the rise among contractors
August 8, 1999
At least two contract employees at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore have been found to have blood abnormalities, a finding that may have far-reaching ramifications for thousands of workers in the area and nationwide.
One contractor, Sponseller Group, Inc., an engineering firm in Holland, O., has severed ties with the beryllium company after a Sponseller employee showed an abnormal blood test - a sign the worker may develop beryllium disease, a lung illness caused by the metal's toxic dust.
"We thought that in the best interest of the company it would be better that we look elsewhere for work," company president Keith Sponseller said.
Another Brush contractor, Rudolph/Libbe Companies, Inc., one of the area's largest construction firms, said at least one employee showed a blood abnormality after working at the Brush plant.
Rudolph/Libbe has started a program to contact 1,000 of its current and former employees and offer blood testing - a move believed to be unprecedented in the private beryllium industry.
"We want to make sure we put our people first," Rudolph/Libbe spokeswoman Judy Kehrle said. She said the program could cost the company up to $600,000.
Sponseller said the recent series in The Blade on the beryllium industry prompted the company to give blood tests to its workers. Rudolph/Libbe said it had been thinking about offering the tests for more than a year.
The two cases among contract workers are significant because they suggest that many more people may be at risk than previously thought. Brush said it knows of only one other case of a contract worker being affected by beryllium dust exposure at any of its plants.
Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said the company goes to great lengths to protect and warn contractors.
"We have always had open communication with our contractors," he said. "We meet regularly with these contractors, we inform them of the potential hazards of working with beryllium, and we provide access to the expertise of both our medical and industrial hygiene personnel. That's been our practice for decades."
In addition, he said, Brush provides contractors with respirators and protective gear.
Regarding Sponseller cutting ties with Brush, Mr. Hanes said: "That's a judgment they had to make. . . . Their business judgment is their judgment."
The Brush spokesman would not say if other contractors have pulled out because of health concerns. Mr. Sponseller said his firm is not the only one to leave, but that could not be confirmed.
Mr. Hanes would not say how many contractors have worked at Brush over the years. He said he knows of only one case of beryllium disease among Brush contractors. In 1994, a contract electrician at Brush's plant in Tucson, Ariz., was diagnosed with the illness. He is suing the company, alleging he was inadequately warned.
An abnormal blood test does not mean a worker has beryllium disease; rather, the body has reacted to exposure to beryllium dust. Experts believe a large percentage of those with blood abnormalities will develop the incurable, often-fatal illness.
Identifying people with blood abnormalities is important because it allows doctors to monitor patients and provide treatment should they develop beryllium disease.
An estimated 1,200 workers have contracted the illness nationwide since the 1940s, including 53 current or former Brush employees at the Elmore plant, 20 miles southeast of Toledo. Numerous other Brush workers at the 780-employee plant have abnormal blood tests.
The blood tests by Sponseller and Rudolph/Libbe are believed to be the first by beryllium contractors in the Toledo area.
Mr. Sponseller said officials at his company decided to do the testing after reading the Blade series, published March 28 through April 2.
It detailed the hazards of beryllium and how the U.S. government and beryllium industry risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly exposing them to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.
Mr. Sponseller said company officials learned "that maybe [beryllium] was a higher risk than we thought. The employees as well were reading the paper. So they were getting concerned about it as well."
The firm has done work for Brush for five years, designing equipment and ventilation systems.
About 10 employees have been in the plant over the last three years, and at least one was found to have an abnormal blood test, Mr. Sponseller said.
"We were surprised because we thought we were working in an area with a small amount of risk," he said.
The company pulled out of Brush July 15. Mr. Sponseller said it was a clear-cut decision.
"We have some younger workers, and we did not want to have them exposed to beryllium for a number of years," he said.
Rudolph/Libbe has test results on about 75 of its workers, with at least one showing a blood abnormality, corporate safety director Dick Kibben said.
The company plans to track down and offer blood tests to all 1,000 of its employees who have done work at Brush since 1995. The program then may be expanded, he said. The firm has periodically done work at Brush for 30 years.
Rudolph/Libbe Companies, which has headquarters in Walbridge, is the parent company of GEM Industrial, Vista Development, and Rudolph/Libbe, Inc. GEM Industrial and Rudolph/Libbe, Inc., have done work at Brush.
The company said there were no plans to stop working at Brush. "We are working with [Brush] to ensure that our people are safe," Ms. Kehrle, the spokeswoman, said.
Rudolph/Libbe recently started taking air samples at the plant. So far, beryllium dust levels have been low, Ms. Kehrle said.
One Brush subcontractor, Duffey Concrete Cutting, Inc., of Toledo, said it was unaware of contractors showing abnormal blood tests.
"This is the first I've heard anything about anybody pulling out, that it was a serious problem, or that there were any concerns," company president Tim Duffey said.
He said about six Duffey employees have done work at the beryllium plant in the last 10 years. He would like to see Brush offer them blood tests.
"In fact, if they don't, I probably will," he said. "I don't want anything to happen to any of my people. If the Sponseller people have been exposed like that, maybe we have, too."
Brush has given blood tests to its own employees but not to contractors. "We can't provide medical surveillance of employees who are assigned and controlled by other employers," Mr. Hanes said.
Brush is America's leading producer of beryllium, a strong, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, and electronic industries. Brush has headquarters in Cleveland and facilities in several states.
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