Houston (Tex.) Chronicle  [Printer-friendly version]
April 6, 2005


By L.M. Sixel

Adam Finkel was OSHA's regional director for the Rocky Mountain states
when he became aware that inspectors from his own federal agency were
increasingly being exposed to toxic beryllium dust.

But when he and others brought the matter to the attention of the top
brass at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency
refused to immediately conduct specific tests for the exposure, which
can lead to a deadly lung disease like emphysema.

OSHA, which is supposed to protect the health and safety of the
nation's workers, wasn't even going to tell its inspectors they'd been
exposed, Finkel said in a 2002 whistle-blower complaint to federal

For the workers at the BP plant in Texas City where 15 of their
colleagues died last month, Finkel's experience must be anything but
reassuring. Many of them believe OSHA is one of the few federal
agencies that can keep companies honest on safety.

If it doesn't, the agency isn't fulfilling its obligation under
federal law, said David Taylor, secretary treasurer of PACE 4-227 in
Pasadena, which represents about 1,700 employees at 12 companies.

"We always felt they were our friends, that they had our back," Taylor

But to hear Finkel's story, that trust may be misguided.

After a couple of years of getting nowhere, Finkel said, he quietly
mentioned the beryllium exposure and OSHA's unwillingness to act to a
trade journal reporter over lunch in the fall of 2002. The day the
story appeared -- Finkel, incidentally, wasn't identified as the
source of information -- he was summoned to Washington, D.C.

Finkel said the then-director of OSHA told him he wasn't doing a good
job and he was sending him to the National Safety Council. That's a
place, Finkel said, "where they send people they don't like."

Finkel, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard and specializes in public health
risk assessment and rule-making, said the new assignment was to plan a
conference three years off.

"I went from 150 employees to me in a room," he said.

He filed a whistle-blower retaliation claim and eventually settled
with OSHA for a "substantial lump sum" plus two years of salary.
Finkel is on OSHA's payroll and went off the clock to do this
interview. He made it clear he does not speak for the agency.

In addition to working for OSHA, Finkel is a professor at the
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where he's
teaching the fundamentals of risk assessment, and is a visiting
professor at Princeton University, where he is teaching regulatory

And, perhaps because of Finkel's efforts, OSHA's acting assistant
secretary sent a memo to all employees on March 24 that said the
agency began offering beryllium testing last year for its current
employees who inspected industries known to use the metal.

"It's beyond ironic that this is what happens to OSHA inspectors,"
said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the non-profit group Public
Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington. "Inspectors
are the first line of defense in occupational safety, yet they've been
treated like cannon fodder."

Tennis clubs to dental work

Beryllium is a lightweight metal used by itself or combined with
copper alloy. It is used primarily by nuclear weapons manufacturers,
ceramic factories and with high precision machinery. The toxic metal
has also made its way into computer chips, golf clubs and dental

When beryllium is mined, refined, ground and polished, a fine dust is
produced, Finkel said. A variety of workers can be exposed, from those
who work in scrap yards burning and grinding computer parts to dental
technicians who adjust dental bridges by grinding, he said. And
spouses can get a deadly dose through exposure from clothes they wash.

The beryllium exposure standard was set in the 1940s, and it was so
high that it wasn't very common to find a company exceeding it, Finkel
said. But medical literature has documented that limited beryllium
exposure 10 to 100 times less than the acceptable exposure is enough
to cause disease.

Only about 40 percent who test positive end up developing symptoms,
which can take decades to develop. But once a disease takes hold, the
victim typically dies from it or related problems.

In its memo to employees, OSHA reported that 10 of its 271 inspectors
-- or 3.7 percent -- who have taken the blood tests have tested
positive for sensitivity to beryllium. Another 31 inspectors are
scheduled for testing.

That's an enormously high rate, Finkel said. He had predicted 1
percent to 2 percent would be positive, but it's looking more like 4

Ninety percent of premature deaths at work are due to chronic exposure
to toxic substances, he said.

"They just don't get that there is an H in OSHA," Finkel said.

OSHA's belated testing isn't going far enough, he said. It doesn't
cover former inspectors or retired inspectors or the inspectors who
work for state-run occupational safety and health programs.

He speculates that OSHA stalled because it didn't want to pay for the
$150 tests.

Too early

An OSHA spokeswoman said in an e-mail that it's premature to discuss
whether the agency will expand the testing program.

"However, former employees can choose to seek private testing and
remain eligible to apply for and receive workers' compensation
benefits for injuries or illnesses that occurred on the job,"
according to the OSHA spokeswoman.

Taylor said he isn't aware of beryllium exposure at refineries and
chemical plants.

"But if we have a situation where they're not monitoring and checking
their own personnel, we have to be concerned that we don't have
exposure issues in the plants," Taylor said.

"Since OSHA is in place, they're out there looking to find the places
that could harm the workers. To find out they aren't, this is a real