UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY
A 'Deadly Alliance'
UE News, May 1999
For more than half a century it’s been known that dust from beryllium metal, even at very
low levels of exposure, can cause berylliosis, a disabling, incurable, often fatal lung disease. Those living nearby beryllium plants, as well as workers, are at risk.
Only 20 years ago, the U.S. Energy Dept. (DOE) entered into a secret agreement with Brush Wellman Corp., a Cleveland-based firm, to become the sole source supplier of beryllium to the U.S. government. DOE agreed to oppose efforts by OSHA to strengthen the federal beryllium standard to protect workers’ lives. A recent series of reports, "Deadly Alliance: How Government and Industry Chose Weapons Over Workers," by investigative reporter Sam Roe exposed the deal. The series ran in the Toledo Blade.
As a result of the deal, OSHA abandoned attempts to improve the beryllium standard. And since 1975, 127 Brush Wellman workers across the U.S. have developed berylliosis, 47 of them at the company’s Elmore, Ohio plant. Of these 47, 39 had documented exposures above the OSHA standard of 2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air. Six have died.
Of the 646 employees currently in the Elmore plant, located 15 miles southeast of Toledo, one in 11 either have the disease or high blood beryllium levels, an indicator of overexposure and possible future disease, according to the newspaper’s report.
Nationwide, there have been about 1,200 documented cases of beryllium disease. The earliest cases, in 1947, were among 11 community residents in Lorain, Ohio, who lived near the Brush Wellman plant. One of them was a seven-year-old girl, Gloria Gorka, who died of the disease. As a result the plant was moved in 1949 to rural Luckey, Ohio, 15 miles south of Toledo. In 1957 this plant was replaced by the current larger plant in Elmore. But the worker illness and deaths continued.
Beryllium was also used in the 1940s to make fluorescent light bulbs at several UE-represented plants. At the 1947 UE national convention, a special session discussed the harmful effects of beryllium and what UE members could do to prevent them. In part due to these efforts, fluorescent light manufacturers halted use of beryllium in 1949, substituting other less harmful materials.
HOT WAR, COLD WAR
But during the 1950s, with a hot war going on in Korea and the Cold War growing in the U.S., military demand for beryllium increased dramatically. Beryllium is a very light, but very strong and durable metal. It was used in atomic bombs and nuclear missiles, as well as later to make the heat shields for spacecraft re-entry.
With all this public information about worker deaths, federal OSHA decided to cut the allowed beryllium exposure level in half in 1975, just four years after the agency’s creation. But in 1978, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger wrote a public letter to OSHA opposing the new standard, citing "national security" concerns. This was the first time national security was invoked to oppose a new safety and health standard.
The Kawecki Berylco plant in Hazelton, Pa., where OCAW members had fought valiantly to protect their health and lives, halted beryllium production in 1979 and closed soon after. This left only one company in the U.S., Brush Wellman, making beryllium for military and civilian needs.
Federal officials panicked and by June 1979 made a secret deal with Brush Wellman.
Never informed but aware of the powerful forces against its proposal, OSHA in the 1980s abandoned its effort to lower the exposure standard. OSHA also largely abandoned its inspections. During the past 20 years, while workers were dying, OSHA conducted only one full inspection of the Elmore plant, the Blade reports. Yet even company officials admit that over the years they have never fully reached compliance with the current OSHA standard, allowing workers to be overexposed. The company has never been
Today, workers continue to die of exposure in Brush Wellman plants. Mary Miller died at age 68 after a 30-year battle with beryllium disease; she had worked in the Luckey plant for four years in the 1950s as a secretary. Butch Lemke from Elmore has been on oxygen for the past 15 years. "If they had told me I’d end up hooked up to an oxygen tank my whole life I would have run away from the damn place," he told reporter Sam Roe.
What can we do to fight for the living? We should demand:
A Congressional inquiry on why U.S. government officials made their secret decision to support Brush Wellman and harm its workers.
That OSHA enact an emergency beryllium standard based on what we already know about the dangers of this metal. Meanwhile, OSHA needs to enforce its current standard strictly.
That NIOSH conduct a study of the current commercial uses of beryllium, especially beryllium-copper. This alloy is used in golf clubs, computer equipment and car airbags. Who is cutting and machining this metal? Are they overexposed? Are they aware of the dangers of even a small amount of beryllium exposure? An immediate survey of alloy uses and who might be exposed is urgently needed.
(The excellent Toledo Blade series can be found at
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