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Published: Thursday, 2/14/2013

Increased beryllium protection promised

Company finds more disease cases

BY SAM ROE
BLADE SENIOR WRITER

Brush Wellman, Inc., yesterday announced major changes to protect its workers from deadly beryllium dust.

Among the improvements: more respirators, increased air sampling, better housecleaning, and stricter plant access, including no more public tours.

"Brush Wellman is committed absolutely to the elimination of chronic beryllium disease,'' said Brian Derry, vice president for operations at Brush, the nation's leading beryllium producer.

The changes took effect Monday at Brush's 650-employee beryllium plant outside Elmore. Brush officials said the improvements were prompted by recent testing at the plant that detected three more workers with beryllium disease and 10 more with abnormal blood tests.

All of these employees, Brush officials said, had worked at the plant less than seven years, and some worked in areas thought to be relatively safe.

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Some welcomed Brush's actions.

"We are heartened that Brush Wellman is working to improve safety and health conditions for its employees,'' said Charles Jeffress, head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "We are looking forward to hearing more about the progress they make.''

Brush officials said the timing of the changes was not related to The Blade's recent series on the beryllium industry or the adverse publicity that followed.

The series, published March 28 through April 2, detailed how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry - primarily Brush Wellman - knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. The articles caused several members of Congress to call for hearings into the matter.Beryllium is a metal used in the defense, electronics, and automotive industries. Workers who process or machine it may contract an incurable, often-fatal lung disease by inhaling the toxic dust.

An estimated 1,200 American workers have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s. Brush reports 142 cases companywide, including those found in recent testing at the Elmore plant.

A total of 220 workers, all of whom were hired after Jan. 1, 1993, participated in the tests. Brush officials said three workers were found to have beryllium disease; 10 others had abnormal blood tests - a sign that they may develop the illness.

After learning of the results in recent weeks, "we decided to make a fundamental shift in how we operate,'' Elmore plant manager Harold Wiegard said.

The changes include:

  • Requiring about 200 workers to wear respirators more often. Brush officials said respirators will be mandatory in areas of the plant where it is likely dust levels will exceed the federal safety standard.
  • Collecting more air samples using small monitors attached to workers' shirt lapels. These monitors will give the company a better idea of worker exposure, Brush said.
  • Restricting access to parts of the plant to workers, contractors, and vendors.
  • Implementing new clothing requirements, such as long gloves.
  • Expanding housecleaning efforts, including beefing up the decontamination crew, which cleans trouble spots in the plant.

 

Additional changes may be made, Brush officials said. In a few months, the firm will analyze new exposure data and determine whether it needs to make major changes to equipment and ventilation.

Brush added that the changes apply only to the Elmore plant. The company has headquarters in Cleveland and facilities in several states. Company officials said they were studying possible changes at the other plants.

Glenn Petersen, a laborer at the Elmore plant for four years, said he was surprised by Brush's steps. "You wouldn't believe how happy I am,'' he said.

Another laborer, Leona Dupler, said she welcomes the changes but wondered why they weren't made years ago. She said if it weren't for The Blade series, Brush would not have acted.

"I think the pressure is on,'' she said.

She added that many workers are unhappy about having to wear respirators more often. "It's a lot to ask. It's hot, it's heavy, your face will break out, like a rash.''

Theresa Norgard, a local beryllium victims advocate, said Brush's moves are significant. "We finally got them to say, 'Yeah, we got a problem here.' ''

But she called the expanded use of respirators "a Band-Aid approach.'' Experts have long stated that respirators should not be a substitute for ventilation and other engineering controls.

"Brush has to do some fundamental re-engineering,'' said Mrs. Norgard, a Manitou Beach, Mich., resident and the wife of beryllium disease victim David Norgard.

Brush officials acknowledged that respirators are a short-term solution but the best one until the firm determined how to reduce the dust.

"We have to protect people now,'' said Mr. Wiegard, the plant manager.



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