Door firm pulls workers out of Brush plant

November 5, 1999

Another contractor has pulled its workers out of the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore because of the deadly health risks there.

"We had to do this. It was the only alternative," said Marty Marinelli, co-owner of Northwood Door, which had fixed and installed industrial doors at the plant the last 10 years. "If you have people working for you, you cannot jeopardize their health," he said. "You cannot take chances."

Northwood Door, located near Walbridge, is the third contractor known to have pulled out of the beryllium plant in recent months, including Rudolph/Libbe Companies, Inc., one of the area's largest construction firms.

The firms cited concerns about their workers possibly contracting beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness caused by inhaling the metal's dust.

Dozens of Brush employees have developed the illness, and while there is no documented case of a contract worker getting the disease at the Elmore plant, blood abnormalities have been detected in at least nine.

Mr. Marinelli said about 15 Northwood Door employees have performed contract work at Brush over the years. He said he decided to pull his workers out after reading a series in The Blade. The six-part series, published in March and April, detailed how the U.S. defense establishment and the beryllium industry repeatedly allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. Beryllium is a strong, lightweight material used in nuclear weapons and in the auto, computer, and electronics industries.

Mr. Marinelli said he does not know if his workers have been harmed by beryllium because they have not had medical tests. "Do I offer my people blood tests and pay for them out of my pocket? That's a big expense."

He said his business is small, employing 20; so he asked Brush to pay for the $600 blood tests. The beryllium company refused, he said. "That's probably the thing that disturbs me the most," he said.

Mr. Marinelli said that while his workers were on the plant site, "we took every safety precaution," including wearing respirators. He said he pulled the workers out in July, though he disclosed that fact this week in an interview.

Hugh Hanes, spokesman for Cleveland-based Brush Wellman, America's leading beryllium producer, declined to comment on Northwood Door's action. He would not say whether more than three contractors have pulled out of Brush or how many contract workers may have been affected by beryllium dust. He reiterated that Brush wants to reduce the number of outside workers in the Elmore plant.

The company has repeatedly said it goes to great lengths to protect contract workers. Brush offers blood tests to its own employees, but not to contract workers. Brush maintains that the contractors should provide those tests.

Ohio's largest environmental activist group called for Brush to pay for blood tests for contract workers. "Everyone who has worked on that plant site should be offered a test," said Sarah Ogdahl, program director for Ohio Citizen Action's Toledo office.

In July, Sponseller Group, Inc., an engineering firm in Holland, O., pulled out of Brush after at least one worker showed a blood abnormality - a sign that beryllium disease could develop. This week, Rudolph/Libbe said it would pull its workers out within the next two months. Seven current or former Rudolph/Libbe workers show blood abnormalities.

In September, Dr. Tom Lieser, a St. Charles Mercy Hospital physician coordinating some testing, reported nine cases.

Nationwide, about 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including 65 current or former workers at the Elmore plant, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.

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