Newport News Shipbuilding workers face a hidden toxin
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — For decades, a gritty byproduct made at coal-burning power plants has been recycled and sold to shipyards, where it is used to "sandblast" rust and paint off the hulls, tanks and other steel surfaces of commercial and military vessels.
At Newport News Shipbuilding, the country's largest shipyard, the product, called coal slag, has long been the product of choice when blast abrasion workers overhaul aircraft carriers and prepare the ships for new coats of paint.
So it came as a surprise to shipyard workers and union safety officials at the yard that coal slag contains trace amounts of highly toxic beryllium — an element that can cause cancer and a potentially fatal lung disease.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, producers of coal slag and shipyard executives have long known that the slag contained small amounts of beryllium, a trace mineral found in rock formations, but until last year the companies that sell the product did not flag the toxic metal on accompanying safety data sheets.
In February 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote to coal slag suppliers to notify them that the safety data sheets they provide to shipyards, including Newport News Shipbuilding, "may not be in compliance" because of omissions of "hazardous ingredients, such as beryllium, arsenic, and others."
Camp Hill, Pa.-based Harsco Corp., a leading producer of coal slag and one of two suppliers for Newport News Shipbuilding, responded to OSHA the next month, saying it did not believe that leaving beryllium off of its safety data sheets violated OSHA standards. Nevertheless, the company's environmental manager wrote, it would update the sheets to include the material.
Workers and union officials say they didn't know that coal slag contains beryllium.
"I wasn't aware of the beryllium in it," said Allen Harville, a top safety official at United Steelworkers Local 8888, which represents more than 10,000 hourly workers at the shipyard.
"I knew it had trace amounts of arsenic," said Harville, who along with other union officials said they first learned of the presence of beryllium when told of it by a Daily Press reporter for this story.
Arnold Outlaw, the union's president, said that while blast abrasion workers are protected with air-fed respirators and full-body suits, other workers have been exposed to blast abrasion dust over the decades with little or no protection, and no idea what beryllium even is.
"The people who do the sandblasting may be the least likely to get a disease from it," Outlaw said. "I've been on boats when the clouds are so thick you don't know where you're going."
Jim Thornton, the shipyard's director for environmental health and safety, said he's not surprised that workers didn't find out about beryllium in coal slag immediately.
OSHA gives employees "a right to request any material they're working with" from the shipyard, Thornton said, but does not require the yard to inform workers about previously undisclosed toxic ingredients in industrial materials.
But he said regardless of what's listed as in the coal slag, the shipyard's safety program is such that workers are safe.
"Whether we're talking about arsenic or beryllium or any of the other heavy metals, our people have been protected for years," he said. So, even with "this discussion that has recently arisen, we really haven't changed anything that we've done per se."
Harville said the company has been more aggressive in using tents to contain dust during blasting of aircraft carriers in recent years, but even so, that process doesn't capture 100 percent of the clouds. He said he's had workers complain about dust getting in their throats and burning their eyes during carrier overhauls.
"If someone says their eyes burn, I'm not going to say they don't," said Thornton. "But we haven't had reports of people coming to us saying their eyes are burning, and our people aren't bashful."
Harville, who often acts as a first stop for workers considering lodging a health complaint with the company, disputes that.
"We had a pile of people," he said of the complaints about blast abrasion dust. Harville said Friday that those complaints came from workers overhauling carriers and doing new construction of the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.
A shipyard spokeswoman said Friday afternoon that the yard's employees do not use coal slag to blast on the Ford.
"We only use coal slag on" overhauls of carriers, she said.
Harville said numerous classes of workers have complained about blast dust on both overhaul and new carrier projects.
"It's generally everybody because when they blast the hull area around the elevators the dust migrates up into the hangar deck, which is where a lot of the crew and supervisors meet at the beginning and end of shifts," he said.
"It's a nuisance at best and at worst it's dangerous," he said. "It's been a problem since I've been on the safety committee with every boat, new and old."
Blast work typically takes place at night during the shipyard's smaller second shift. Harville said a group of second-shift employees — "pipefitters, machinists, tool clerks working around one of the aircraft elevator openings" — told the union they were having problems with the dust.
Thornton said when blasting takes place in interior areas of a ship, it is trickier to contain the dust, and the shipyard goes to great length using tenting to do so.
"We're doing some additional air sampling just to verify that the numbers we've gotten over the years remain in that range, but we haven't changed our programs in terms of medical monitoring or training," Thornton said.
Though shipyards have a range of blast abrasion grits they can choose from to get grime and rust off a ship, Thornton said coal slag has a good track record and performs better than some of the alternatives.
"It's readily available, does a good job and has been used for years and years and years and years," he said. "The Navy uses it, we use it, other shipyards use it."
But not every other shipyard.
Davis Boat Works, a far smaller Newport News shipyard and a Coast Guard contractor, stopped using Harsco's popular coal slag brand Black Beauty more than a year ago, in part because of the heavy metals in the product. Davis now blasts with a recycled glass grit.
"It's a much cleaner process to use the glass bead product as opposed to Black Beauty," said Davis president Frank Wagner, who is also a state senator from Virginia Beach. "Economically, it costs a little bit more per ton to buy the glass bead product, but production-wise it cuts a lot faster, so although we pay more for the product up front, we save money on labor."
Wagner said the decision wasn't purely economic, though.
"That dust gets into everything (and) in addition to the human hazard it gets into electronic equipment," he said. He noted there's a debate over health risks that he doesn't want his yard caught up in.
"This takes us out of the entire equation," he said. "It was cost effective and it was the right thing to do."
Thornton said Newport News Shipbuilding has experimented with other types of grit, but so far nothing worked as a permanent replacement to coal slag.
"We used garnet for two or three years," he said. "We used garnet because it doesn't have beryllium and arsenic in there. Although it has some desirable characteristics, it proved that it had some performance issues with it … so we went back to the coal slag."
"We tried dry ice, and we tried walnut shells," he said, "but (walnut shells) explode because they're organic."
In Harsco's letter to OSHA, the company's environmental manager, Stephen A. Stanislawczyk, argued that competitors who sell blast abrasion materials should face equal levels of scrutiny for heavy metals in their products: "Even crushed glass abrasives demonstrate measured concentrations of beryllium, chromium, lead, and managanese above the limit of detection."
A discussion or a debate
There has been an ongoing discussion about the presence of beryllium in coal slag for over a decade at OSHA, the worker safety agency that oversees industrial safety standards for shipyards and in manufacturing facilities generally.
"I'm just paraphrasing on this," Thornton said, "but they say the jury's still out on this."
OSHA has estimated the potential of coal slag blasting to cause illness, but has not tested shipyard workers to see if the estimates are valid.
According to OSHA, 29,101 workers are involved in abrasive blasting nationwide. Newport News Shipbuilding employs about 100 abrasive blasters, a company spokeswoman said, and hires outside workers to supplement its workforce.
In related 2005 and 2007 studies, OSHA estimated that 121 to 613 workers a year nationwide could be getting chronic beryllium disease as a result of exposure to coal slag blast dust. As many as two dozen workers a year could be getting lung cancer.
But the OSHA estimates are just that: estimates. A clinical test — which would consist of a battery of blood tests of exposed shipyard workers — has never been conducted.
"I don't know that there's a study that says coal slag causes (chronic beryllium) disease," said Lee Newman, a professor of occupational health at University of Colorado at Denver, and an expert on illnesses caused by beryllium exposure.
Coal slag suppliers say there is no evidence linking their product to the disease.
Stanislawczyk, Harsco's environmental manager, noted in his letter to OSHA that the company "has successfully and beneficially used coal slag for nearly 80 years, with no known beryllium-related illnesses."
Because the gritty product is "vitrified," or heated into a glassy substance, Stanislawczyk said, any harmful impurities contained within it "are not 'released' from the crystalline structure of the granule'" and into the blast dust.
Harsco spokesman Ken Julian added in a recent interview that beryllium exposure during abrasive blasting can be "mitigated" when shipyard workers use proper protective equipment and clothing.
But Newman said absent a clinical test, neither shipyards nor regulators know if protective equipment and other safety measures are preventing workers from getting the disease, which in a minority of cases can be fatal.
Symptoms can mislead
The disease is an immune-system response to beryllium in a person's lungs. It typically progresses gradually and can cause coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue.
Studies have found that workers in smelting operations and who work with pure metal forms of beryllium have contracted the disease. Additional research suggests that it has been misdiagnosed in a number of cases because it has symptoms similar to another lung disease called sarcoidosis.
Though testing of shipyard workers for beryllium-related diseases has not happened, it has been discussed by a trio of government entities in the last year, according to correspondence obtained by the Daily Press.
In a Sept. 17 letter, Thomas Galassi, OSHA's top enforcement officer, asked NIOSH for help investigating evidence of chronic beryllium disease and its precursor, beryllium sensitization, among abrasive blast workers. He said he'd already reached out to the Navy.
"The Navy's initial response was positive," Galassi noted, "but potential costs were a concern."
Allison Tepper, who leads NIOSH's hazard evaluation and technical assistance branch, said the institute "is unable to assist directly in this effort."
Tepper explained that a low percentage of workers exposed to beryllium become sensitized to the toxin, potentially leading to chronic beryllium disease. As a result, she said, any test would have to be "large-scale."
Moreover the effort would be trickier because of the potential for "abnormal test results" — or false negatives and false positives.
"That's an excuse for doing nothing," Newman said. "People have been throwing darts at this test for a long time, just like they do at every clinical test.
"None of them are perfect but it remains the single best test we have for testing beryllium sensitization and beryllium disease."
He said the alternative is living in ignorance. At worst, he said, if it turns out exposure to dust from coal slag is causing disease, shipyard workers may have lung problems and not know why or how best to treat them.
"It's tragic when you see it and it's potentially preventable if you had just paid attention to the exposure," he said. "It's a case of, here's the devil you know, but you're not dealing with it."
What is beryllium?
Beryllium is a rare and toxic element found in the Earth's crust. It also exists in trace amounts in coal slag, a byproduct from coal-fired power plants that is heavily used at shipyards across the country as a sandblasting material to knock rust and grime off of hulls and other surfaces of ships.
The process creates thick clouds of dust, and workers who blast with coal slag wear air-fed respirators and body suits to limit exposure.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, In some industries beryllium has been linked to a chronic lung disease in workers. Chronic beryllium disease progresses gradually and can cause coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. In some cases it is fatal.