Until now, OSHA has never before undone a law that put safety requirements in play to protect workers from known carcinogens. Not once.
Beryllium, a toxic element and known carcinogen, is at the heart of a fight between construction and shipyard employees and the federal government. On January 9, 2017, less than 2 weeks before President Trump was sworn into office, former President Obama published a law that would require construction and shipyard industries to protect their workers by requiring air quality testing and monitoring employees for beryllium exposure. The law, set to go into effect in June 2019, was stalled on March 21, 2017 by the Trump administration, saying it wanted to delay the law due to concerns over the impact it would have on abrasives manufacturers, shipyard and construction companies. In late June, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) announced it wanted to completely abandon beryllium safety protections.
Beryllium Puts Shipyard and Construction Works at Risk for Disease & Cancer
Beryllium is a byproduct of ground charcoal, the abrasive material typically fed through high pressure washers for industrial cleaning purposes. Beryllium exposure can cause lung cancer, as well as berylliosis, a respiratory illness that can ultimately cause death. Many of the symptoms of berylliosis, shortness of breath, an overall feeling of being tired, and cough, mimic other respiratory illnesses, something that industry executives and trade groups have attempted to use in their favor.
Many say that they are unaware of any cases of berylliosis in their years in the industry, but health experts dispute these claims, citing several facts:
- There are only a few labs in the U.S. who can process the specific test for berylliosis
- No one is aware of any company who is currently testing employees for berylliosis
- With such an little-known disease, experts believe most cases of berylliosis have been misdiagnosed as other, more common, respiratory illnesses.
According to Reuters, there are nearly 12,000 workers in shipyards and construction sites who are routinely exposed to beryllium as part of their job.
The news outlet tells the story of Wardell Davis, who in 2007 at the young age of 24, took a job working on U.S. Navy ships. Outfitted with a respirator and personal protective equipment (referred to as PPE), Mr. Davis used ground charcoal to clean ships for a year before he found a better job. He had kids and was happy. But four years after leaving his job cleaning ships, Davis, a regular swimmer, noticed he was having a hard time breathing. He was ultimately diagnosed with lung disease due to his exposure to beryllium. He lost a lung and now lives on disability. He is suing the manufacturer of the abrasive he used while employed on the shipyard, as well as the company who made the PPE he wore on the job.
Lawmakers Influenced by Donations and Lobbyists
Reuters reveals that a 2016 cost-benefit analysis shows that it would cost companies around $1,000 a year/per employee to implement the safety regulations in Obama’s proposed beryllium law. Industry execs say the cost would impact jobs, halting hiring and even causing layoffs at shipyards, abrasive manufacturers, an construction companies. They also argue that it would likely cause these industries to switch to other substances that are just as harmful but would fly under the radar of the beryllium law.
However, that same cost-benefit analysis showed that the savings as whole would total $28 million a year in healthcare and ‘loss of society’ costs, the financial impact of losing one’s life on loved ones left behind.
The suspicious nature behind stalling this law comes in here: OSHA has never before undone a law that put safety requirements in play to protect workers from known carcinogens. Not once.
On March 13, 2017, Bradley Byrne, a U.S. Representative from Alabama sent a letter to the Department of Labor (who has regulatory authority over OSHA) requesting that they get rid of the beryllium safety protections. He recruited at least 14 other U.S. Representative and Senators to join his crusade, saying he had met with two companies who produce these abrasives. These two manufacturers, Harsco Mineral and Mobile Abrasives, Inc., allegedly told Rep. Byrne that the law was unnecessary and even harmful to their business. Both manufacturers are also part of an industry group that spent $270,000 on lobbyists to influence government leaders that the safety rule was bad for business and unlikely to provide much benefit to workers. The day Byrne sent his letter to the Department of Labor, he received a $5,000 donation to his reelection campaign from Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group who also favored overruling the safety protections.
By March 21, 2017, OSHA had announced they were delaying the beryllium safety provisions law.
By June 27, 2017, OSHA announced they would be abandoning the safety provisions altogether.
Employees: Be Your Own Advocate
It’s a common saying in healthcare that also extends to employees in any industry. No one will look out for your well-being and safety better than yourself. BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE. Many employees are aware that asking tough questions ruffles feathers and can cause retaliatory behavior by their employer. If you work in construction or another industry in which you are exposed to industrial chemicals or abrasives, you should be confident in the safety measures your employer has in place for your protection.
If you suspect exposure to toxic chemicals at your job and your health has suffered has a result, you may be entitled to compensation. Levin & Perconti has been behind many of Illinois’ successful personal injury, workplace and injury cases for almost 3 decades. Our firm has recovered over half a billion dollars for a clients in verdicts and settlements and has the legal, medical, and industry expertise required to secure justice for you. No employee’s health or safety should be compromised as the result of a company’s desire to save money.
Call the personal injury attorneys of Levin & Perconti now for a free consultation: toll free 877-374-1417, in Chicago 312-332-2872, or by completing our online case evaluation form.