Brush Wellman looks on bright side of a deadly metal
Sunday, May 07, 2000
By JENNIFER SCOTT CIMPERMAN
PLAIN DEALER REPORTER To prove the usefulness of be ryllium, a light-gray metallic element found in certain minerals, a Brush Wellman executive points to two metal cylinders, each about the size of a ketchup bottle.
One metal cylinder is made of steel and weighs about three pounds. The other weighs just ounces; it is crafted of beryllium, which is six times stronger than steel.
Beryllium is the basis for Brush Wellman Inc., founded 69 years ago after two Cleveland researchers discovered applications for a metal previously thought useless. While first used in atomic bombs, beryllium is the difference between a computer that overheats and one that functions properly, Brush executives say, or between delicate automobile air bag sensors that crack or fail and those sturdy enough to survive the impact of an accident.
But while safe in solid form, it can prove deadly to workers and others who inhale its dust or fumes.
Beryllium’s health hazards were first noted in the 1940s after workers at a former Brush plant in Lorain fell ill with a blistering rash that in some cases developed into a deadly lung disease causing fatigue, shortness of breath, night sweats and, ultimately, suffocation. The disease, known as chronic beryllium disease, or CBD, also struck wives of workers, who inhaled dust while washing their husbands’ work clothes, as well as some people living or working near the plant.
The decades since have been filled with new cases of beryllium disease. But increased awareness of the hazards and a rising number of lawsuits filed by CBD victims haven’t scarred the company’s books or its popularity among shareholders. While acknowledging beryllium disease and investing in workplace measures to prevent it, Brush continues to fight health agencies and governmental groups pushing to toughen regulations for beryllium exposure. The future of beryllium use, Brush executives say, is not in question.
"If we could produce 30 percent more, we could sell it," said Brush Vice President Hugh Hanes, citing beryllium’s use in air bag systems, emergency sprinkler systems and weather satellites.
"In that respect, [beryllium] products are life saving," he said.
Hanes’ candor infuriates Brush’s critics, who contend that the company has failed to properly acknowledge sick workers or protect current ones.
"Workers for 50 years have gotten sick and died," said Amy Ryder, director of the Cleveland office of Ohio Citizen Action, a nonprofit consumer and environmental group. Before Brush’s annual shareholders’ meeting last Wednesday, Ryder stood outside distributing leaflets showing CBD victims hooked to oxygen tanks.
"I find it hard to believe that they can’t make and handle this metal safely."
Brush is a company built on battle.
Founded in Cleveland in 1931, Brush supplied beryllium used to help split the uranium atom in 1939, leading to development of the atomic bomb. Pictures of atomic bomb blasts hung from the walls at Brush’s headquarters in the 1950s, although the company would not confirm whether its beryllium was inside the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.
At the same time, workers started to get sick.
In 1948, Brush’s Lorain plant was destroyed by fire, and four lawsuits were filed by Lorain residents, alleging beryllium illness. One man said he had been exposed while fishing off a pier behind the Brush plant. Another sued to recover "the loss of the services of his wife," who was sick and couldn’t do chores. The Ohio Health Department traveled to the city to take chest X-rays of residents. Lawsuits stemming from the plant continued into the mid-1950s.
By then, the federal government - the biggest consumer of beryllium and owner of beryllium plants in Luckey, Ohio, and other states - had set a strict standard limiting beryllium exposure to two micrograms of dust per cubic meter, equal to a marble-size piece pulverized and spread over a square mile. Brush’s business was humming, and in 1957 a new plant opened in Elmore, a small city outside Toledo.
Regardless of the standard, some Elmore workers eventually were diagnosed with CBD. In the 1980s, more workers were diagnosed with the disease at a Brush facility in Tucson, Ariz. Current or former workers may not develop symptoms for more than a decade after being exposed, so it’s almost impossible to tell when they inhaled beryllium dust or fumes. Not all workers who inhale beryllium will suffer from CBD; research points to an allergic reaction that leaves some workers prone to the disease, while others appear to be immune to it.
Last year the Energy Department proposed a compensation program for an estimated 20,000 workers that may have been exposed to beryllium at government-run plants and, potentially, at plants operated by major government suppliers, such as Brush. The Energy Department expects to spend an average of $13 million per year for the next 10 years to compensate CBD victims.
Meanwhile, new cases of CBD continue to be diagnosed at Brush, where Hanes said about 1,000 workers out of a total 18,000 work directly with beryllium. The number of CBD lawsuits in 1999 grew to 37 (involving 119 plaintiffs) from 19 (involving 35 plaintiffs) in 1998.
Michael Hasychak, Brush’s vice president, treasurer and secretary, said some new suits have been prompted by recent company-funded blood tests, which can detect the disease decades before actual symptoms occur. Other plaintiffs may have been spurred by high-profile media coverage, including an award-winning series of articles published last year by the Toledo newspaper, the Blade, and a segment that aired last month on ABC’s newsmagazine "20/20."
"We can’t deny that there’s more media coverage of chronic beryllium disease," Hasychak said. "In some cases, we think it has been misleading. That has heightened some awareness of this matter."
Since January, seven suits were filed against the company by current or former Brush employees or their spouses and loved ones. In February, the Northwestern Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council filed a lawsuit against Brush on behalf of tradesmen who did work at the Elmore plant as subcontractors. The suit charges Brush with failing to warn workers about beryllium, and it seeks medical testing and surveillance for as many as 7,000 people who performed work at the plant from 1953 to the present. Brush has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.
In March, another class action suit was filed on behalf of Brush customers, whose workers may have ground and molded beryllium alloys after buying them from Brush. The suit, which could grow to include "tens of thousands of workers," said Steve Jensen, a partner at Texas’ Baron & Budd, which filed the suit.
"We’re talking to all the employees of all the customers Brush has had over the decades. It’s not our intention to create a ban on beryllium. But it is a very dangerous toxin. Exposure needs to be reduced."
Safety debate Brush says it works hard to minimize worker exposure.
Hanes said new hires are taken through an extensive orientation including films and frank discussion about the hazards of beryllium. When they arrive at Brush’s Elmore plant for a shift, they are required to strip to the skin and put on company-issue work clothing. In some manufacturing areas, they also don special suits. They also must use respirators and wear special gloves.
At the end of a shift, workers use air showers to blow off dust and remove their company-issued clothing, which the company launders.
Workers recently have been required to wear beryllium monitors on their lapels. Workers who don’t follow procedures are subject to warnings and dismissal.
Despite such rules, a 1997 Brush-funded study of the Elmore plant found that 9.4 percent of tested workers either had chronic beryllium disease or abnormal blood tests possibly signaling the disease.
Since 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Washington has proposed lowering the standard for beryllium exposure in the workplace to 0.5 micrograms, a move Brush opposes.
Last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an alert to workers handling beryllium, stating that the current legally allowable exposure "appear(s) to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease." OSHA plans visits to plants where beryllium is handled and will issue a recommendation in 2001.
Hanes said Brush opposes any changes; he would not say what the new standard would cost the company in new equipment or other plant costs.
"We have a dialogue with OSHA on the issue," Hanes said. "Our position is that the standard should be set by medical research, not media pressure."
Last year OSHA found three violations at Brush’s Elmore plant over exposure to beryllium above mandated levels.
Former Brush worker Dave Norgard said tighter standards are overdue.
Norgard, who joined Brush’s Elmore plant in 1981, said workers leaving the manufacturing area often shared a locker room with guys starting their shift. The result, he said, was a mix of contaminated and clean clothing, possibly spreading beryllium dust. The company maintains that it closely monitors such areas for beryllium dust.
A few months after joining the company, Norgard developed a full body rash and puffy blisters. He left the company but eventually returned in 1983 in another area of the plant. He was diagnosed with CBD in 1992 and left with full pay.
Norgard, now 45, has filed a lawsuit seeking to recover his medical costs.
"The dollar amount is not really an issue," Norgard said. "It’s a matter of right and wrong. So many people are dead. For what? For a stupid product."
On its honor Brush doesn’t shy away from defending its safety practices or financial health.
"We will go to any means required to protect our reputation," said Hanes, Brush vice president of government affairs.
Company documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Brush paid $183,000 last year to victims of CBD, down from $1.1 million in 1998.
Hasychak, Brush treasurer and secretary, said the company spends $1 million annually monitoring its workers’ health. Of the lawsuits settled by Brush, "nothing has been [financially] material to the company," he said.
That’s because many individuals with CBD are covered by the state’s workers’ compensation system, which provides a portion of pay and medical benefits to workers who become disabled on the job.
Between 1964 and 1995, the year Brush became self insured and started handling its own workers’ comp claims, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation paid out $3.8 million to 66 Brush workers stricken with "occupational disease." The total is less than $130,000 per year. The workers’ comp system also paid out a total of $5 million during that period for 16 deaths of Brush workers, although records don’t specify whether the deaths were beryllium related.
Workers who turn down workers’ comp in favor of lawsuits typically lose. While some cases have been settled out of court, others have been thrown out, said Louise Roselle, a Cincinnati lawyer representing 12 people with beryllium disease and the families of two people who died from it. No cases have gone to trial.
"You have to show that the employer knew of a hazard, that the employer knew the injury was substantially certain to occur," Roselle said. Plaintiffs must show "that the employer forced the worker to work under those conditions," she said.
New products on horizon Hanes said that in addition to workers’ comp, which limits workers to just under $600 per week, Brush workers who have the disease also receive the balance of their salaries for life. But workers who are still able to function are required to move to another department at Brush or volunteer with social service agencies in exchange for their pay. Barring that, they can take one year’s pay and end their relationship with the company.
Last year Brush launched a World Wide Web site that details company-funded research on the disease, its investments in fighting CBD (more than $60 million during the last two decades) and its side of the beryllium controversy.
Investors, meanwhile, have been buoyed by two new beryllium-based Brush products which, because they contain less beryllium, are cheaper and, thus, likely to find wider application. They are used in automobile and electronic equipment, computers and telecommunication devices.
The company’s stock has remained virtually unchanged in the last 12 months, closing at $18 a share on Friday. On May 16, Brush will adopt the name Brush Engineered Materials Inc., of which Brush Wellman Inc. will be a subsidiary.
The company continues to win praise from stock owners, mostly institutions such as mutual funds and state retirement funds.
David Webb, executive vice president of Shaker Investments, said he is pleased with the company’s progress. The firm, based in Shaker Heights, owns 95,800 Brush shares.
"I think [beryllium] is a very old issue," Webb said. "I think it is well understood and contained from the company’s standpoint."
Cleveland firm Maxus Investment Group owns 152,800 shares, and Chief Investment officer Dennis Amato is comfortable with Brush’s approach to CBD.
"We think they’ve been responsible in the way they’ve handled the exposure," Amato said. "They’ve never tried to hide the problems. They’ve spent money on research to minimize the problems."
But Brush this month caved to public pressure in Lorain by agreeing never to produce beryllium at its current facility there, which makes metal alloys of bronze. A council member had proposed the ban to avoid a repeat of the beryllium disease outbreak in the 1940s.
Publicity like that may eventually tarnish the lure of the light-gray metal.
"There ought to be a way to make this stuff safely," Norgard said. "By God, if there isn’t, don’t make it."
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©2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.