Wednesday, January 19, 2005

OSHA Inspectors: Left Twisting In The Wind

Whistleblower Vindicated

In times such as these, when government agencies are asked to ignore their Congressional mandates to protect workers, the environment and the public; when government employees are required to ignore their mission and take orders from political appointees determined to deliver the agencies to the highest bidders; when we have too few journalists with the knowledge, interest or curiosity to report on what's happening to what is supposed to be a government by and for the people -- it's good to know that there are some brave whistleblowers out there who will risk their reputations and livelihoods to make sure that workers are protected and that truth sees the light of day.

A bit of background: In the Fall of 2002, OSHA Regional Administrator Adam Finkel disclosed to the press that OSHA Assistant Secretary John Henshaw had pulled the plug on a plan to test OSHA inspectors for exposure to beryllium as a result of inspections conducted in contaminated facilities. Beryllium is an extremely toxic metal that carries a high risk of causing chronic beryllium disease, a fast-progressing and potentially fatal lung disease.

In return for his service, Finkel was removed from his position and filed a whistleblower complaint against OSHA. Last April, after much fanfare in the national press, Henshaw announced that OSHA would offer testing for beryllium disease to inspectors who may be been exposed to the toxic dust in the course of inspections.

Earlier this week, Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe reported that OSHA has found that
several of its employees have been affected by exposure to the deadly metal.

The Tribune has learned that ongoing medical testing shows that at least three OSHA workers have developed blood abnormalities linked to beryllium exposure--the first such cases at the agency. The workers are thought to have been exposed while conducting safety inspections in industries using beryllium, a lightweight metal whose dust can cause an often-fatal lung disease.

Beryllium is used in a variety of industries to help make products ranging from missile components to laptop computers to golf clubs. The safety agency estimates that 1,000 inspectors, or three-fourths of its force, have conducted inspections in industries handling the metal


There is no cure for beryllium disease, but early detection can aid treatment. Symptoms include shortness of breath and fatigue, and some people eventually cannot breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank.

For Finkel, who reached a settlement with OSHA, it was a bittersweet victory:
Finkel, who now teaches health policy at Princeton University, said he was saddened to learn some workers have developed blood abnormalities, but "it's exactly what I said would happen."

He said OSHA officials knew inspectors were exposed to high levels of beryllium dust and that agency officials should have offered testing sooner. "They let them twist in the wind for many years," he said. Finkel, who remains on OSHA's payroll until next year as part of the whistle-blower settlement, emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the agency.
Henshaw resigned from the agency last month, and his Deputy, R. Davis Layne also retired last month.

In an interview with Confined Space, Finkel (speaking for himself and not the agency) described the harassment he has experienced from high OSHA officials which was mystifying, considering the low cost of the tests ($150) and the severity of the disease. Finkel also expressed concern about the OSHA retirees who have not yet been offered testing, as well as inspectors in the 21 states that run their own occupational health and safety programs.

In response to Roe's article, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who supported Finkel's whistleblower complaint, sent a letter to Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labor, the agency that oversees OSHA. PEER called on Chao to "open an investigation into the four-year delay before testing commenced and the campaign of deception that accompanied it."

PEER also called on Chao to warn retirees, state plan inspectors and Environmental Protection Agency inspectors to get tested, ascertain the levels of beryllium that inspectors have been exposed to and notify those with the highest exposure, and to revise its beryllium standard which is still based on a 50 year old level.

The Bush administration and the Republican Congress has four more years to wreak havoc on protections that have been legislated over the past decades to protect workers, consumers and the environment. Our only protection for the near future will be whistleblowers like Adam Finkel and journalists like Sam Roe who are able and willing to find the truth and tell the people. They all need and deserve our support.