Worker stunned disease struck so quickly

At 24 and with 2 years on the job, chronic illness sets in

Tim Jennison worries about how beryllium disease will change his life.
Tim Jennison worries about how beryllium disease will change his life.

Tim Jennison had planned to work just a few more months at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant, pay off his car loan, and go back to college.

"I didn't want to stay there long because I didn't want to get [beryllium disease]," the 24-year-old Oak Harbor resident said.

But Mr. Jennison said that a few weeks ago, before he learned he has the often-fatal lung illness.

"I'm definitely concerned," he said. "It could shorten my life or I might have an oxygen tank to carry around the rest of my life."

Brush Wellman officials yesterday reported that recent testing at the companys' plant outside Elmore detected three more workers with the disease. Ten others showed abnormal blood tests and may later develop the illness.

The company reports 142 cases of beryllium disease companywide -- 15 more than it reported earlier this year. At least 53 current or former workers of the Elmore plant have the disease.

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Mr. Jennison said he began working at the Elmore plant in 1997 in the cast shop. Early this year, he said, he decided to quit this summer and go to college. He had previously attended Terra Community College in Fremont.

"I wanted to go back and get an engineering or business degree," he said.

But in February, he learned he had an abnormal blood test. "I quit right there on the spot," he said. "I didn't even finish the day."

He underwent further tests, and on April 20, Brush told him he had the disease, he said.

"I wasn't upset until I got to my car," he said. "I never dreamed I could get it in two years [of work]."

His mother, Laura Jennison, spoke about her son through tears. "I'm really mad," she said. "It didn't have to happen."

Mr. Jennison, who is single and has no visible symptoms of the disease, said Brush did not adequately warn him about the hazards. "They didn't stress it," he said.

Money, he said, was the major reason he took a job at Brush. He was earning $12 an hour when he left.

"It was a good job. Good benefits. Around here there aren't too many jobs like that."

He said that after he was diagnosed with the disease, Brush promised to pay him a year's salary even if he did not return to work.

Brush officials yesterday said they will not comment on individual cases.

Another worker recently diagnosed with the illness spent 10 years at the Elmore plant. She declined to comment, and her daughter spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

She said her mother is not bitter toward Brush and views her illness as God's will.

"She accepts it as 'everything happens for a reason, and this is part of the design, and I will never be given more than I can handle.'"

The daughter said Brush promised to pay her mother's medical expenses. "I feel confident that Brush Wellman is going to do everything for my mother that they can do."

A worker with blood abnormalities said Brush adequately warned him of the hazards.

"At this point, I'm not angry at Brush. I just feel disappointed and unfortunate that it is happening to me," said the worker, who requested anonymity.

The man, who has three school-aged children, continues to work at the plant.

"A lot of people who are outside the situation would probably say, 'Man, get the hell out of there.'" But he said the pay is good, and the plant is near his home.

Even if he found a new job nearby, "I would have to start on the afternoon shift and be stuck there for several years, where I wouldn't get to see my kids as much. So there are other quality-of-life issues that mix in with this."