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August 3, 2001

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    OSHA choice vows beryllium review
    Harmful effects of metal noted

       
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    By Sam Roe
    Tribune staff reporter
    Published August 3, 2001

    The nominee to head the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration told a Senate panel Thursday that if confirmed, he would review reports of American workers being harmed by the highly toxic metal beryllium and report back to the Senate.

    John Henshaw, former safety director of a St. Louis chemical company, made the comment at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Organized labor supports Henshaw's nomination, and he is expected to be confirmed soon.

    Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, raised the beryllium issue at the hearing by noting that a Tribune investigative article published Sunday reported that workers have been harmed by the metal in a variety of businesses, including the machining, recycling and dental industries. Kennedy cited the newspaper's findings that many companies handling beryllium were not following OSHA's rules and guidelines and that the agency rarely inspected such businesses.

    Henshaw said he was not familiar with the Tribune's findings. But he said that as head of OSHA, he would try to ensure that beryllium workers and others handling hazardous substances were protected. At Kennedy's request, the nominee said he would review the beryllium issue.

    The Tribune investigation found that companies across the country were not taking basic precautions, such as air monitoring, to protect workers from beryllium, a strong, lightweight metal whose toxic dust can cause an often fatal lung disease. In a spot check of 30 businesses working with beryllium, the newspaper found that none followed all of OSHA's recommended safeguards. OSHA is the government agency that sets and enforces workplace safety standards.

    About 1,300 workers nationwide have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s. Once found primarily in the defense industry because of the metal's use in weapons, the illness is emerging in commercial industries. Cleveland-based Brush Wellman Inc., America's leading beryllium producer, has said that beryllium can be handled safely if proper precautions are taken.

    Henshaw, 51, was director of environment, safety and health for Astaris LLC, which manufactures phosphorus-based products. In opening remarks to the panel, he said that OSHA should enforce its laws and encourage employers to voluntarily reduce workplace hazards.

    "OSHA must use all of its tools in its tool bag," he said. "The hammer must always be in our bag and used where necessary. But like a good craftsman, we must know how to use all of our tools and to pick the right tool for the job."

    Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune


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