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Published: Saturday, 12/22/2001

Ill Brush workers given ultimatum

BY STEVE MURPHY
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 yesterday.

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 said.

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 said.

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 said.

The program, which aims to help retrain employees to find other jobs, “was never intended to be a permanent thing,” Mr. Cahill said.

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.

“I think 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 nothing.”

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 disease.

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.



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