Exposure to beryllium not a factor for the US Navy

With a budget of $155.8 billion, one might think the US Navy could afford to make sure service members won’t needlessly suffer from exposure to toxic substances.

But the United States Navy has exposed workers to beryllium, a highly toxic metal, and then deliberately chosen not to test them for beryllium sensitization.

To determine beryllium sensitization, the price for the Beryllium Lymphocyte Proliferation Test is $266.00 per test ($133,000 to test the 500 service members who are likely to have been exposed).

In reaction to this, on September 5, 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Region 9 issued “serious violations” to the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center South West located in Coronado California for “failing to put in place Safety and Health Programs, polices and procedure to protect employees from the hazards of Beryllium.”

Beryllium can cause in chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer. It can be found in many industrial products, including coal slag, where it is used in abrasive sand blasting operations. Short-term exposure at low levels can cause immune system sensitization to beryllium in as little as two months.

The Navy, via their shipyards and contractors, is one of the largest single source users of coal slag abrasives in the country. “Abrasive blasting operations in shipyards, including those of the US Navy, have used coal and copper slag abrasives for decades, since they first began to be substituted for sand-based abrasives,” wrote Thomas Galassi, Director of Enforcement Programs for OSHA.

Excerpt from letter from OSHA’s Director of Enforcement Programs, Thomas Galassi

However, after decades of use in naval shipyards and despite recent violations for beryllium exposure, the Navy has decided that the potential cost for testing workers for beryllium sensitization, outweighs the health benefits.

It is a sad day for the United States when the Navy can’t find $266.00 in their proposed $155.8 billion budget to test our troops  for the lethal effects of beryllium exposure. The brave men and women who are in our Navy and the workers that they contract have a right-to-know when harmful chemical exposures enter the workplace, and to a test for exposure.

The Navy’s decision not to test workers for beryllium sensitization is a policy choice being made on grounds that refuse to factor in safety and health – and it’s the wrong one.

Keith Wrightson is the workplace safety expert for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Keep up with Public Citizen’s workplace health and safety work by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter