Article published December 22, 2001|
Brush workers given ultimatum
to duties inside or lose jobs
BLADE STAFF WRITER
ELMORE - Brush
Wellman has given 16 employees who have chronic beryllium disease a
stark choice for the holidays: Return to work inside the plant next
month or lose your job.
The affected employees, who work off
site or in the company’s administrative offices, have until Jan. 1
to decide whether to go back to production work or accept a buyout,
Dave Cahill, Brush’s director of human resources, said
Employees who leave will receive a year’s wages
and health coverage, plus up to 12 weeks’ severance pay, he said.
Those who return to the plant will displace other, less senior
employees who will be laid off.
A sharp downturn in the
company’s business forced Brush Wellman to curtail a program for
employees who contracted the incurable lung disease at the plant,
Mr. Cahill said. "We’re just in a position right now where we can’t
continue to do that because of the stresses we’re under," he
The firm began requiring some workers with the lung
disease to volunteer for duty outside the plant in 1995, The Blade
reported in a 1999 investigation of the beryllium industry. Those
who refused had two other options: continue working at the plant or
quit and get a year’s pay.
The off-site Elmore and Oak Harbor
locations will be closed at the end of the year, Mr. Cahill
The workers chosen to be removed from the program are
those who have held off-site jobs the longest or those considered to
have the best prospects for finding work elsewhere, the company
The program, which aims to help retrain employees to
find other jobs, "was never intended to be a permanent thing," Mr.
For now, 16 other workers in the program will
remain on the payroll, but that could change if orders don’t
rebound, he added. "Our business is off by about 60 percent, and
last year at this time we had about 900 employees on the plant
site," he said. "Now we have about 620. About 170 of those people
were involuntarily laid off."
Gary Renwand, Sr., a former
Brush worker who has beryllium disease, said the company is
abandoning employees after causing their illness.
it’s terrible that they’re doing this to them," Mr. Renwand said. "I
realize business is slow, but they should be taking care of these
people with chronic beryllium disease. But now they’re giving them
Mr. Renwand said his son, Gary Renwand, Jr., a
Brush worker who also has the disease, is one of the employees who
will remain in the off-site work program. The younger Mr. Renwand
could not be reached for comment.
The elder Mr. Renwand said
he has spoken to Brush workers affected by the program’s reduction,
and they don’t want to talk about it publicly "because they’re
afraid of losing their jobs."
An official with Ohio Citizen
Action, the state’s largest environmental group, condemned Brush’s
action. "They went to these people and said, ‘You’re going to have
to risk your life to save your job,’" Amy Ryder, director of Citizen
Action’s Cleveland office, said. "It’s cruel."
Beryllium is a
strong, lightweight metal that was used by the government during the
Cold War to make nuclear bombs. It now is used in less lethal
products such as toys, computers, and golf clubs. About 1,200 people
nationwide, including at least 75 current or former workers at
Brush’s plant near Elmore, have contracted beryllium disease since
the 1940s. The disease is an incurable, sometimes fatal lung
In 1999, The Blade documented a 50-year pattern of
misconduct by the federal government and the beryllium industry.
Among the findings: Government and industry officials knowingly
allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.
The Blade detailed how beryllium disease is emerging in a variety of
industries, including machining, recycling, and the dental
businesses. The newspaper found that some firms handling beryllium
were not following safety rules.