Ex-worker says Brush wanted him silenced

November 14, 1999

Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Elis
Glenn Petersen, a critic of Brush Wellman, was fired form his job at the company's beryllium plant.
(Toledo Blade photo by Darrel Ellis)
Federal authorities are investigating whether the Brush Wellman beryllium company violated whistleblower laws when it recently fired one of its most outspoken employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is looking into why the beryllium company fired Glenn Petersen, a 29-year-old furnace operator at the Brush plant near Elmore and a leading critic of the firm's health and safety practices.

Brush Wellman documents state that the company fired Mr. Petersen for poor behavior, including absenteeism.

But Mr. Petersen says that Brush Wellman - a company facing mounting criticism over its health record - wanted to silence him.

In the last two years, Mr. Petersen has tried to organize a union at the Elmore plant; distributed flyers proclaiming "Brush Wellman Lies!''; and complained to OSHA about safety problems in the plant involving beryllium, a metal whose toxic dust has caused the illnesses and deaths of numerous Brush workers.

In fact, shortly after he wrote to OSHA last May about workers being overexposed to beryllium dust, safety regulators began a rare, surprise inspection of the Elmore plant.

"It's a classic whistleblower case,'' says Sarah Ogdahl, a local environmentalist familiar with the case.

Brush Wellman says it had a right to fire Mr. Petersen.

In a prepared statement, the Cleveland-based company says Mr. Petersen's firing Oct. 21 "was a result of his job performance and nothing else. He was given every chance to do better, through a four-tier disciplinary process, which is followed at Brush Wellman, and he simply failed to do so.''

Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes would not comment further.

Mr. Petersen says he was stunned when Brush fired him. "I thought I had been visible enough that Brush wouldn't be stupid enough to fire me because it is against the law.''

Toledo Blade photo by Herral Long
Brush Wellman has been under fire for allowing workers to be overexposed to beryllium dust, which can cause a chronic lung illness.
(Toledo Blade photo by Herral Long)
Now, he says, he is struggling to pay his bills. He has filed for unemployment and is moving from his $665-a-month apartment in Perrysburg to a $325-a-month one in nearby Moline. "This has made me pretty much hit rock-bottom,'' says Mr. Petersen, who is separated from his wife and has no children.

But he says he will continue to fight Brush. "People are dying of beryllium disease, and it could be prevented.''

Brush Wellman has been under fire since March, when a Blade series detailed how the U.S. government and American beryllium companies, including industry leader Brush, allowed workers to be overexposed to beryllium dust, which can cause a chronic lung illness. Congress initiated two investigations, environmentalists pressed for reforms, and several Brush contractors pulled out of the Elmore plant.

OSHA officials would not comment on Mr. Petersen's case. Under federal law, employers cannot punish workers for complaining about unsafe working conditions. If discrimination has occurred, OSHA can take the employer to court to restore a worker's job, pay, and benefits. OSHA's Toledo office reports it receives about 80 whistleblower complaints a year, with a quarter found to be valid.

Leona Dupler, a Brush machinist who has pushed for a union at the Elmore plant, says company officials clearly fired Mr. Petersen to silence him. "He asked too many questions they could not answer - or did not want to answer.''

Brush worker Gary Renwand, Jr., says Mr. Petersen often raised important safety issues, "but maybe he gets a little carried away sometimes. When he gets on a subject, he'll just keep pushing it.''

Mr. Petersen started at Brush five years ago, cutting and rolling sheets of beryllium alloy. Then he became a furnace operator, producing pure beryllium. "I started noticing how our attitude in handling this toxic material was really cavalier,'' he recalls.

When fellow workers proposed organizing a union at the plant under what was then the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, Mr. Petersen volunteered. He says he worked up to 40 hours a week on the effort, talking with employees and handing out leaflets. One leaflet proclaimed: "Brush Wellman Lies!'' On the other side was a picture of Mr. Petersen, smiling.

But when it came time to vote, in October, 1998, Brush workers resoundingly rejected a union. Still, Mr. Petersen kept up his activities.

  • In May, he wrote to OSHA and asked for a safety inspection. A month later, OSHA began inspecting the plant - only the second full OSHA inspection of the facility in 20 years. The inquiry is pending.

  • In July, he wrote and handed out flyers lampooning a letter distributed by a group of Brush employees who were upset about The Blade series and attacks by environmentalists.

  • In August, he got into a heated argument with two salaried employees. The topic, Mr. Petersen says, was a safety issue.

    Two weeks after the argument, Mr. Petersen was suspended for 11 days. "Your performance and behavior at work have become intolerable,'' Brush's Keith Smith wrote to Mr. Petersen.

    Mr. Smith stated that Mr. Petersen had been warned several times for bad behavior, including reading in the control rooms and missing about 11 days of work that year.

    But mostly, Mr. Smith assailed Mr. Petersen for arguing with the two Brush officials and distributing a lampoon-style flyer.Mr. Smith wrote that Mr. Petersen repeatedly called the Brush officials "jackasses'' and "blatantly attacked the integrity, authority, and competency of these professionals in a public setting.'' Mr. Petersen acknowledges he was angry, but he says he had a right to be: The company, he felt, was trying to relax a safety measure.

    As for Mr. Petersen's flyer, Mr. Smith said it was "distasteful, offensive, and tended to create a hostile work environment.'' Mr. Petersen says he was simply rebutting the position of workers loyal to the company.

    Just days after returning to work from his suspension, Mr. Petersen and several other workers resurrected the union effort, he says. Flyers were distributed announcing the plans. A few weeks later, on Oct. 21, Mr. Petersen was fired.

    Two reasons were given, Brush documents show: On Oct. 1 and Oct. 4, Mr. Petersen had called in sick "without submitting proper documentation.'' And on the second day of his absence, he did not call in until 40 minutes after the start of his shift.

    Mr. Petersen says he had the flu and had never needed a doctor's excuse for the flu before. Plus, he says, Brush waited two weeks to ask for an excuse. By then, he had recovered and could not get a doctor's excuse.

    He says he is confident he will win his job back. "I hope to show employees at Brush Wellman that they don't have to cave in to these fear tactics, that they have some rights under the law.''

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