Dems press to strengthen standards on inspectors' exposure to beryllium

Two House Democrats, angry that a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was answered by a deputy, plan to renew a campaign to push the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to provide better safeguards for agency inspectors exposed to beryllium, a metal linked to serious illnesses.

With the assistance of a former OSHA whistle-blower, Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller (Calif.) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee ranking member Major Owens (N.Y.) plan to increase the pressure on Chao in an effort to seize her attention and shed light on what they contend is a failure of OSHA to protect its workers.

An aide to Miller said he would “constantly go at it” until he is satisfied with Chao’s response. “My boss is not opposed to writing several letters,” the aide remarked.

Miller and Owens wrote Chao on Feb. 9 requesting an explanation of OSHA’s policies regarding beryllium in response to media reports about OSHA employees’ exposure to the metal, which is used for a variety of applications ranging from nuclear weapons to mobile telephones.

“If these reports are true, [we] have no doubt that most Americans would find it disgraceful that the very agency charged with safeguarding health and safety in the workplace is failing to protect its own workers,” Miller and Owens state.

“We were hoping to hear directly from the secretary,” said Miller’s aide, but instead received a letter from acting Assistant Secretary Jonathan Snare, who has overseen OSHA since January.

The two Democrats hope to obtain support from some House Republicans, such as Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (Ohio) or the GOP leadership. Without GOP backing, the prospects of a legislative approach are poor, the Miller aide acknowledged.

After receiving the March 24 letter from Snare, the two Democrats enlisted former OSHA Denver regional administrator Adam Finkel to evaluate the department’s response.

Finkel effectively departed the agency after alleging that then-OSHA chief John Henshaw was postponing action on strengthening beryllium-exposure standards. The agency placed the initiative on its regulatory agenda in 2002 but has not issued a proposed regulation setting out a new standard.

Finkel joined OSHA in 1994 and technically continues to be employed by the agency even though he has no work responsibilities and now holds a position at Princeton University, he said. He accepted a settlement in exchange for abandoning his fight for official whistle-blower status and will receive pay until January 2006.

In Finkel’s May 13 letter to Miller and Owens, he offers biting criticism of OSHA’s response to the congressmen and says that its current beryllium standard is “symptomatic of the agency’s cavalier attitude about chronic exposures in the nation’s workplaces.”

OSHA announced in March that 10, or 3.7 percent, of the first 271 inspectors tested showed signs of beryllium “sensitization,” which leads to beryllium disease in a small number of people. The ailment is characterized by respiratory difficulties resulting from inhaled particles of the metal and can be chronic. Some research also has linked beryllium to cancer.

Among the complaints that led to Finkel’s departure from active duty at OSHA was his estimate that 1-2 percent of inspectors would be sensitized to beryllium. Describing this claim as “the heart of my disclosure” that contributed to the end of his tenure at the agency, Finkel notes to Miller and Owens that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel “dismissed my disclosure on the grounds that I had exaggerated the magnitude of this hazard.”

An OSHA spokesman said inspectors could be sensitized in other settings or during employment before their work for the agency. He also stressed that the science of what causes some people to become sensitized and only a fraction of those to become ill is not definitive.

The lack of certainty about the risks of beryllium exposure should provide more, not less, impetus to protect OSHA inspectors, Miller’s aide said.

Currently, OSHA inspectors can receive testing for beryllium sensitization under a pilot program launched in 2000. Workers who test positive also receive medical care and counseling. Former OSHA employees are not eligible to participate. “Refusing to even inform them of their exposures is callous in the extreme,” Finkel says in his letter to Miller and Owens.