- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration whistleblower yesterday accused the federal agency of refusing to test hundreds of employees potentially exposed to toxic beryllium.

Dr. Adam Finkel, an OSHA administrator for the Rocky Mountain region, accuses the agency of trying to protect itself from liability and damaging public disclosures by denying blood tests for employees who may have come into contact with the chemical.

“The risks of delay or failure to test are so substantial, and the costs of testing so minimal, that in my view, the only plausible reasons to defer or deny testing is fear of tort [lawsuit] liability,” Dr. Finkel said in a statement.

He filed the statement with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel as part of a request that the agency start an investigation.

Beryllium is a metal used in nuclear weapons development at Department of Energy facilities.

About 500 current and retired OSHA inspectors who occasionally checked the facilities for environmental hazards might have been exposed to beryllium, Dr. Finkel said.

Relatively low exposures can cause chronic beryllium disease, a fatal and painful lung disease. A $150 blood-screening test can detect the risk of developing the disease.

Respirators intended to protect the inspectors from toxic exposures are not always effective, Dr. Finkel said.

He accused Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw of vetoing staff recommendations for blood screening and a campaign to inform inspectors they might have been exposed to beryllium.

OSHA denied Dr. Finkel’s charges, saying in a statement: “OSHA has a medical monitoring program that provides for agency-paid special testing, such as beryllium, if there was a possibility that an employee may have been exposed. Agency employees have been tested for beryllium under that program.”

The program is in the process of being expanded for OSHA inspectors possibly exposed to beryllium, the agency said.

It also said Dr. Finkel’s charges have been investigated previously but were found to lack merit.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is supposed to order an investigation of whistleblower charges if it finds “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing,” said Travis Elliott, spokesman for the investigatory agency.

Regarding Dr. Finkel’s complaint, Mr. Elliott said, “I can’t comment on any ongoing investigation or review we might be involved in.”

He said the special counsel would decide whether to order a full investigation within 15 days after the request was filed.

The health and safety advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has sided with Dr. Finkel in his request for an investigation.

“OSHA is supposed to be setting appropriate workplace health standards yet it is failing to take the prudent steps required to protect its own inspectors from a lethal lung disease,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director.

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