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Published: Thursday, 3/21/2013

Brush Wellman fined for unsafe conditions

OSHA finds dangerous levels of beryllium dust

BY SAM ROE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Federal investigators have hit the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore with 19 job-safety violations and nearly $50,000 in fines - the largest such package of penalties at the facility.

Among the violations: workers being exposed to high levels of beryllium dust, a toxic material that has hurt or killed dozens of employees at the plant.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the violations and fines Monday after a five-month inspection at the plant.

Advocates for beryllium victims said OSHA's report is more evidence that Brush Wellman officials are knowingly overexposing workers.

"They are consistently breaking the law, they know they are breaking the law, and they know that the consequences of breaking the law is that some people will get sick and some people will die," said Theresa Norgard, a leading advocate.

Sarah Ogdahl, program director for the Toledo office of the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action, called the findings "sad."

"We will continue to pressure the company and government in light of these findings to stop these exposures," she said.

OSHA records describe 15 of the 19 violations as "serious," with problems ranging from improper electrical wiring to warnings that downplay the risks of beryllium.

Three violations are related to workers being overexposed to beryllium, a lightweight metal whose dust can cause an often-fatal lung disease. Inspectors documented three workers exposed to beryllium dust levels over federal safety limits.

Brush Wellman spokesman Hugh Hanes said: "We have a lot of confidence in our health and safety program, and we think it's an excellent program, and we think that the inspection, in fact, confirmed that."

He said that the Brush facility is a large, complicated plant, and "you have to put these violations in context. None of these violations were egregious or willful. None of them were repeat violations."

Some violations, he said, were corrected immediately, and others will be fixed soon.

Arnis Andersons, director of OSHA's Toledo area office, which conducted the inspection, said the investigation "was as thorough as we could possibly make it." Brush was cooperative, he said, and "I think they are going to be taking care of the problems out there."

The OSHA inspection began in June, three months after a six-part Blade investigation documented how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed workers to be overexposed to beryllium dust. In addition, the series reported how safety enforcement by OSHA virtually had been nonexistent. Until this summer, OSHA had conducted only one full inspection of the Brush plant in 20 years.

OSHA has said that a worker's complaint triggered its recent inspection of the beryllium plant, a 780-employee facility along the Portage River in rural Ottawa County.

The most serious findings involve workers being overexposed to beryllium dust. Inspectors found that a machine operator in the plate department, a worker at the atomization furnace, and an employee in the new cast shop were exposed to levels above federal standards.

Other violations: Warnings for some beryllium products did not identify the materials as human carcinogens, and some electrical equipment was not used or installed properly.

The 19 violations carry a fine of $49,950. Brush has 15 days to contest the findings.

The fine is not unusually high. In recent years, OSHA has fined several area companies more than $100,000.

The previous high OSHA fine against Brush's Elmore plant was $26,875 in 1993. Brush contested some of the violations and ended up paying $12,350.

Gary Renwand, Sr., a former Brush worker with beryllium disease, said the latest fine is too small. "It should be a lot more. Fifty thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket for Brush."

Mr. Renwand, whose son Gary, Jr., contracted beryllium disease at the Elmore plant, said he wasn't surprised that inspectors found workers being overexposed. "No matter where you go out there you're going to find that."

Mrs. Norgard, the victim advocate, said she is skeptical that Brush will make substantial changes. She said it is cheaper for the firm to willingly violate standards and pay thousands of dollars in fines than to spend millions of dollars on better safety equipment.

Said Ms. Ogdahl: "It's a shame that more has not been done by the government and the company to prevent these exposures. The information is there, and the studies have been done; now let's do something about it."

Brush officials previously acknowledged that the firm has never consistently kept beryllium dust levels below federal limits in all parts of the Elmore plant.

The Cleveland-based company is America's leading producer of beryllium, which is used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries. About 1,200 people have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including 65 current or former workers at the Elmore plant.



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