OCTOBER 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBER 10
U N D E R C U T T I N G W O R K E R S A F E T Y
The preliminary results of health assessments of nuclear weapons production workers -- who worked for Department of Energy (DOE) contractors -- conducted by Elizabeth Averill Samaras for the Alice Hamilton College of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) reveal worker concerns about future health problems, inadequate health insurance and high levels of exposure to substances such as ionizing radiation, beryllium, asbestos and carbon tetrachloride.
"These nuclear veterans of the Cold War have a statutory entitlement to medical surveillance and medical exams that has never been funded. Ironically, there is no ongoing remedial activity for these contaminated workers, yet DOE is spending $6.5 billion per year for remediating contaminated dirt and nuclear waste," says Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the OCAW. "The only difference between the DOE under the Clinton administration and the darkest days of the Atomic Energy Commission, when it comes to protecting the health of nuclear workers, is in the rhetoric."
Beryllium boom and bust
To see the impact of the Cold War's legacy on former nuclear weapons workers, DOE bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. need drive no further than four hours north to Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The arrival of the Beryllium Corporation of America to Hazleton in 1957 brought a welcome economic stimulus and a source of steady employment. But almost 40 years later, all that remains of the plant is a Cold War legacy of occupational disease.
In the mid-1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) -- the DOE's predecessor -- awarded the Beryllium Corporation a $23 million, five-year contract to produce 500,000 tons of beryllium -- a strong but malleable metal used in the nuclear, electronics and aerospace industries. The plant refined thousands of tons of beryllium ore into beryllium metal. More than 1,200 people worked in the facility from 1957 until it shut down in 1980.
At the time the Hazleton beryllium plant plant was designed, scientists already knew about the dangers posed by exposure to beryllium dust. Workers confronting high exposure levels commonly develop acute symptoms similar to bronchitis or pneumonia. Lower exposure levels can cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD) -- characterized by lung inflammation and scarring -- including granuloma, the growth of tumor-like masses of capillaries on the lung surface. CBD can take from several years to several decades to develop. When it does show up, it can become a seriously disabling disease with such symptoms as shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, fatigue and the loss of appetite and weight. Most CBD victims are able to control these symptoms with prescription drugs, though the disease can be fatal without early detection and treatment.
The AEC set air-quality standards for beryllium dust in 1950, seven years before the beryllium plant came to Hazleton. In 1993, a local newspaper, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, uncovered AEC documents that revealed that a 1958 AEC air sample taken at the Hazleton plant found beryllium dust levels that were 330 times the maximum allowed by federal short-term exposure standards. The Hazleton plant also took air samples at the plant at least twice a year from 1957 to 1962. These samples exceeded the regulatory standard in 15 reports uncovered by the Times Leader, even though the company had installed new air-safety equipment in 1958.
After the Hazleton plant's government contract expired in 1962, the company's chief customers became private industries. As a result, regulatory responsibility for the health and safety of the plant workers shifted from the AEC to the Pennsylvania state Department of Health. In the mid-1960s, the Hazleton beryllium plant was bought by Kawecki-Berylco, which sold the plant to the Cabot Corporation in 1978.
Concerned about beryllium-related illness, Kawecki-Berylco workers organized in 1970 with the OCAW. "Doctors told workers at Kawecki-Berylco -- many of whom had previously worked in coal mines -- that the symptoms they were describing were 'miner's asthma,' " says Tony Mazzocchi, who was then the OCAW's legislative director.
Upon learning from workers about conditions inside the plant, the OCAW brought in doctors and an industrial hygienist. Independent medical consultations led to the diagnosis of seven cases of beryllium disease among employees who already had passed X-ray tests given by local doctors.
OCAW also fought to obtain records of air sampling conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Some of these records were eventually released, indicating high levels of exposure to beryllium dust at the Hazleton facility. "The tragedy of Hazleton is that both the corporate and government sectors abdicated their responsibility to these workers," says Mazzocchi. "After a long struggle, workers have won the right to know about the substances they work with. What workers need now is the power to act on that knowledge. Workers should be trained as inspectors and deputized by the federal government to enforce all health and safety regulations. Corporate control of all industrial hygiene and medicine must also be under the control of the potential victims -- workers."
The former workers and their families blame more than 90 deaths on the elevated beryllium levels in the plant. Jim Leonard, the son of a former Hazleton beryllium worker and an advocate for their cause, contacted the OCAW in 1992 in response to rising numbers of illnesses among former plant workers.
Leonard's father, Albert, worked at the plant from 1960 to 1973. "Almost from the beginning [of his employment], my father was sick," Leonard says. "It started with skin rashes. Then he developed a cough. As he was coughing, a clear liquid would come out of his lungs. He just never felt right or normal after that." Albert Leonard died from beryllium disease in 1986 at age 58.
The premature death of Albert Leonard and other workers like him could and should have been prevented, since the medical community and the government knew the hazards of beryllium exposure. Now that the exposure has occurred, early detection and intervention -- which can often control the symptoms of the disease -- is vital to the lives of the remaining workers. Medical screening -- which costs from $300 to $350 per worker -- can help monitor for symptoms of the disease. Once detected, treatment can be prescribed.
Among the former Hazleton plant workers who are still alive, there are approximately 250 former hourly workers and an estimated 1,000 salaried or short-term employees who face elevated risks of beryllium disease. Despite their contributions to the Cold War effort, these workers are finding little recourse for health monitoring or care. Because beryllium disease can take 20 years to surface, workers often experience the health consequences of their jobs long after Pennsylvania's six-year statute of limitations on workers' compensation runs out.
Several lawsuits filed to hold Kawecki-Berylco and Cabot Corporation responsible for some medical liabilities failed. The courts have ruled that workers cannot prove that their employers intentionally injured them. The corporations have argued that, once excessive exposure levels were detected, workers were issued respirators. Plant management also took yearly chest X-rays to detect beryllium disease and installed safety equipment in the 1970s.
The courts have ruled that the Cabot Corporation, which did not respond to a request for comment, has no legal responsibility for the health of former workers. Yet it is held legally responsible for plant environmental damage, expecting to spend up to $4 million to clean up the site. "Millions of dollars will be spent to cover or bury the shit left over, yet they [Cabot Corporation] won't spend a few thousand on the workers," said a former Kawecki-Berylco worker at a 1994 meeting organized by the OCAW to allow workers to discuss the beryllium disease with a medical specialist.
Denied medical assistance by the owners of the beryllium plant and the state workers' compensation program, former Hazleton plant workers sought DOE relief. The DOE conducts a Beryllium Workers Health Surveillance Program at its Rocky Flats and Oak Ridge nuclear facilities. Given that the beryllium processed at Hazleton supplied Rocky Flats, the OCAW appealed to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in June 1994 to have Hazleton workers included in this government program. Eight months later, the agency refused. A February 1995 response from DOEsaid, "there is no apparent legislative authority" to include former Hazleton workers in the program.
"The people suffering and dying as a result of their occupational exposure to beryllium will be relieved, if not surprised, at their Government's continuing commitment to their health, just like all of the current and past DOE workers no doubt have been bowled over by DOE's response to their health concerns," OCAW President Robert E. Wages wrote back to the DOE.
"I was shocked when they [DOE] turned us down," says Jim Leonard. "The cost of a screening program is petty cash to them."
Congress passed portions of the Defense Nuclear Workers' Bill of Rights in 1992, which mandates that DOE's new clean-up mission must include medical surveillance. But DOE has yet to request funding for the medical surveillance requirements that were included in the Defense Reauthorization Act covering fiscal year 1993, according to OCAW's Miller. DOE allocated $300,000 per year to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for a three-year screening and surveillance program that does not include former Hazleton workers.
"The Department of Energy clearly has a responsibility for the health of its nuclear weapons complex workforce," says OCAW's Wages. "The OCAW -- along with the United Steelworkers and the International Chemical Workers Union -- is demanding that Congress and the DOE allocate adequate funding for existing programs and that a comprehensive program of worker notification, medical surveillance and access to health care also be funded and implemented."
Representative David Skaggs, D-Colorado, sponsor of the Defense Nuclear Workers' Bill of Rights, is a critic of the government's failure to adequately recognize and compensate the efforts of its nuclear workers. "For more than 40 years, workers at the nation's nuclear weapons plants have been among America's front-line soldiers in the Cold War," Skaggs says. "These workers have dedicated their careers to this difficult and sometimes dangerous national defense mission, and we should treat them now with a decent sense of national responsibility. They did their part -- we should keep faith with them."
A Union View of Worker Safety
Tony Mazzocchi is presidential assistant to Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
(OCAW) Union President Robert Wages. Based in Washington, D.C., Mazzocchi is
also an organizer with Labor Party Advocates.|
Multinational Monitor: How did you get involved with worker safety?
Tony Mazzocchi: When I left the army after World War II, I went to work in 1946 on the assembly line of a Ford Motor Company factory in Edgewater, New Jersey. I came into the chemical industry in 1950, getting active in the union and, in 1953, becoming president of a local of what was then called the Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers. I've been active in this union for 45 years, holding every elected and appointed position except the presidency.
Worker safety at that time was only understood in terms of physical trauma: getting hit with something, falling from something or getting your hand stuck in something. We were never informed of health conditions. We just assumed that someone made sure that we weren't exposed to toxic substances. It wasn't part of our consciousness.
The only federal law was the Walsh-Healey Act, which covered a company if it had contracts with the government in excess of something like $10,000. They had about 20 inspectors for the entire country.
TM: It was in the mid-1960s that we began to agitate around the need for a federal worker safety law. There were a whole series of events that raised consciousness among workers based on the revelations being made by the environmental movement, which identified toxins in the communities. The realization was not lost on us that, "Hell, we produce this stuff and we're exposed to much higher concentrations than any community." There were thousands of substances in the workplace. There also was a great deal of empirical evidence collected by workers who observed that people were getting sick and dying.
A number of us in Washington worked with the environmental movement and science community to formulate a strategy that ultimately led to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. The act established the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
TM: There was a tandem effect. Although the environmental movement might not have been working on the Occupational Safety and Health Act per se, the issues they raised neatly dovetailed with concerns workers had. So there was a background of noise, agitation and linkages. I was chairman in New York City at the largest Earth Day rally in 1971. That was a recognition of the importance of these ties.
TM: OSHA represented the culmination of consciousness among working people and the population at large that something was wrong and something had to be done. A law was established. While we all had problems with the limitations of the law, we welcomed it. It provided a means for workers to petition the federal government to create standards for toxic substances and a way to call for a federal inspection of a plant.
But the law was always inadequately funded. The cornerstone concept, that the workplace shall be free of all hazards, was never realized.
In retrospect, OSHA is designed to mitigate against success. Workers have to be empowered to inspect their own workplaces and cite the employer for violations rather than waiting for a federal inspector who may never arrive. There are 6.1 million workplaces covered by the act. With a couple thousand inspectors, they may be able to visit your workplace once every 100 years. With worker empowerment, you would have millions of inspectors at no expense to the taxpayer. All the "feds" have to do is empower them.
The other thing that should happen is that no corporation should be allowed to hire their own safety personnel: no doctors, no nurses, no industrial hygienist or health and safety experts. They should be all paid for by the corporations but controlled by the workers. This should all be under the control of the people who are the potential victims. As it is now, we have company doctors who are hired to take care of the health of the corporation, not the health of the workers. The system has to be changed if the health of the workers and community are to be addressed.
TM: The federal government has always represented corporate interests. There is always great resistance to legislation that would extend remedies to workers. Industry, of course, resisted strenuously. We were successful in 1970, even under [Republican President Richard] Nixon, because there was great agitation all throughout the country through the environmental movement and the labor movement. Because of this pressure, Nixon did not veto it.
TM: "Enlightened corporation" is sort of an oxymoron, unless "enlightened" means efficiently maximizing the rate of return. When you maximize productivity, you have to do it at the expense of the community and the worker. The measures that maximize the rate of return mitigate against good environmental and safety practices. Someone has to pay. The costs now are being shifted back to the backs of workers. We essentially give a subsidy in terms of our health and years of our lives to the corporation. You either diminish profit or you diminish health. Right now, profit is supreme and health is secondary.
TM: The federal government has always resisted regulation of radiation facilities because the weapons program and Cold War were in full swing and they wanted to diminish any concern over radiation effects. We had what were called GOCOs, or government-owned, contractor-operated facilities. Now that they're looking back over the atomic era, they're validating many of the charges that we made over the years about the hazards. But only the revelations are rolling out now, not the remedies. They're failing abysmally to deal with millions of victims who worked and produced for this country.
TM: It's a question of political power. The debate is framed by corporations and both political parties react to that debate, which says: We need less federal regulation. Working people need to create a new political cadence. They need to frame the debate.
Now, we have to prove that something hurts us before anything can be done about it. We would raise the issue the other way. If you want to introduce something into the workplace or the market, you ought to prove that it is safe because the corporate track record has been so poor. Tens of thousands of toxic substances have been introduced into the environment.
We shouldn't have to revert back to the body-in-the-morgue method, where we must show how many of us have died before some scientist can say, "Oh, there might be an association between exposure, subsequent morbidity and mortality."
MM: How do you explain the Republican takeover of Congress in November?
TM: If you look at the data, the Republicans got 19 percent of the eligible vote and the Democrats got 18 percent. Most people didn't vote because they don't see either party representing their interests. It's not a question of the Republicans suddenly rushing in and dismantling everything. It's a question of a retreat by both parties over a long period of time. That left the door open to the more radical element of the Republican Party to come in. These are people with ideology, with a blueprint and commitment to come in and move very rapidly. When the Democrats were in control, there was no commitment or blueprint. There was just a dilatory process of constant downward compromise. Workers have responded by basically saying, "A plague on both your houses."
TM: In 1989 and 1990, the OCA W and other unions conducted a membership poll. The results showed that 55 percent of the people characterized the Democrats and Republicans as more responsive to corporate interests than worker interests and said that we ought to consider a new party. We organized LPA and we believe that there is a critical mass out there. We are having a convention in June 1996 in Cleveland designed to define who we are. At that time, the party will be born -- with a program.
We will seek to redefine the debate and to introduce issues into the next presidential campaign that ordinarily would be ignored. None of us expect immediate thunder and lightning. We come out of organizing traditions and understand that it is a long-term process. We are one of the few industrial nations that does not have a labor party. We think now is the time to organize one. nEditor's postscript: DOE and NIOSH indicated as Multinational Monitor was going to press that an award of approximately $400,000 will soon be announced to fund a program of beryllium medical research and surveillance. The award is expected to include medical screening of at least some former Hazleton workers.