In July, a federal judge ordered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to open its extensive database on toxic exposures so scientists, the media and other members of the public can examine the records and use the information to assess and update toxic exposure limits and safety procedures.
The specific impetus for the order was beryllium exposure. OSHA’s current permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium was developed more than 60 years ago and has not been updated. Despite mounting evidence that even small exposures to beryllium dust, even for short periods, can result in chronic beryllium disease (CBD), lung cancer and skin disease, OSHA had refused to share the results of years of sampling at U.S. workplaces by agency inspectors. However, on July 2, U.S. District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper, responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by former OSHA official Adam Finkel, ordered OSHA to open its database to the public.
Finkel was a chief regulator and regional administrator for OSHA from 1995 to 2003 and was aware that many OSHA inspectors had been exposed to beryllium during workplace inspections. His career at the agency came to an end when he publicly disclosed the agency’s decision not to offer medical testing to these inspectors. He then sued the agency to open all its toxic records for public examination. As the suit moved through the legal process, tests on a small group of OSHA inspectors confirmed unexpectedly high incidences of beryllium-related blood abnormalities.
The situation is likely to be worse for 130,000 American workers who are exposed to the metal’s dust, oxides, fumes, ceramics or salts on a daily basis. Beryllium is used to make aerospace components, semiconductor chips, jet engine blades, transistors, nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. LIUNA members are employed at a number of facilities where they potentially have been exposed to Beryllium.
The agency had argued that sharing the information would invade the privacy of its inspectors and might open up trade secrets of the inspected companies to their competitors. Whistleblower Finkel and other critics argued that OSHA was simply putting the interests of companies and the agency itself ahead of the public’s interest in understanding toxic disease and how best to protect workers from unsafe exposure. Finding for Finkel, the judge ruled that “the public interest in disclosing information that will increase understanding about beryllium sensitization and OSHA’s response thereto is significant.”
The database is not limited to beryllium and includes all of more than two million toxic analyses conducted during roughly 75,000 OSHA inspections since 1979. Finkel, now a professor of environmental and occupational health at the New Jersey School of Public Health and a visiting professor at Princeton University, said, “Ordinary citizens paid to collect this data, and I look forward to analyzing this public database to help OSHA find its way back to its original mission.”