Monday, November 20, 2006
WASHINGTON // It took six years to get federal worker safety officials to issue warnings to auto mechanics that the brakes they're working on could contain lethal asbestos fibers. But it took only three weeks after the warnings were posted before a former top federal official with ties to the auto industry reportedly pushed to have them removed.
John Henshaw, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called Aug. 15 for the agency to make changes to its warnings, according to documents obtained by The Sun.
But Ira Wainless, an OSHA scientist who wrote the advisory bulletin about asbestos in brakes, refused, according to agency documents. Wainless cited dozens of studies, including work at his own agency, to show that his presentation of the medical risk to mechanics was solid.
Last week, David Ippolito, an official with OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Wainless that he would be suspended without pay for 10 days if the changes weren't made, according to documents.
Wainless refused again, and the advisory bulletin remains online.
"It is outrageous that OSHA would try to intimidate one of its own scientists for doing his job with integrity," said Ed Stern of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
According to the union, OSHA wants the July 26 advisory to include studies, financed by the auto industry, that say that asbestos in brakes does not harm mechanics.
In a six-page letter to Ippolito rebutting the agency's charges against Wainless, Stern wrote: "It becomes clear that you have selected [him] as a scapegoat and whipping boy to justify revising the [warning] in response to big industry. Mr. Wainless, like every other OSHA employee, is supposed to serve the public interest, not industry lobbyists."
The union rebuttal letter noted that former OSHA chief Henshaw worked with two consulting firms run by Dennis Paustenbach, ChemRisk and Exponent. These firms, according to Stern and documents obtained by The Sun, have been paid more than $23 million since 2001 by Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler to help fight asbestos lawsuits brought against them by former workers.
Neither Paustenbach nor Henshaw responded to a request for comment. OSHA and the Department of Labor also did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment
Wainless, a 32-year veteran of the agency, declined to be interviewed for this article.
According to OSHA documents, the need for the warnings surfaced in 2000 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an investigative series that documented high levels of asbestos being released as mechanics worked on brakes in garages in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and five other cities.
The effort to get warnings out to mechanics who wrongly believed that asbestos was banned took six years. Industry lawyers sued to have earlier warnings eliminated; industry-funded research found that there is no harm from the asbestos used in brakes. Car and truck manufacturers also said they had stopped using asbestos in brakes in the 1990s.
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that hasn't banned the use or importation of most asbestos products.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who is on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the effort to change the warnings is "what the auto industry and brake industry is doing to defend itself against lawsuits from people who died from occupational exposure to asbestos."
"The people that repair our cars and trucks deserve, at a bare minimum, to be warned," Kucinich said. "In the long run, we need to ban asbestos from the U.S. to catch up with much of the rest of the world."
Henshaw and others say the warnings aren't needed because asbestos is no longer used in the United States.
In May, The Sun reported an 83 percent increase in imported brakes with asbestos over the past decade. Most of these are replacement brakes used by garages and backyard mechanics.
Further, an Aug. 31 internal OSHA memo on the brake warnings to agency chief Edwin Foulke Jr. stated: "Some domestic automobile manufacturers continue to use, in certain models, asbestos brake pads and linings."
In the agency's suspension notification to Wainless, it faulted the industrial hygienist, who is an expert on the recognition, evaluation and control of hazardous materials, with failing to have adequate scientific documentation to support the claim of asbestos' danger. Yet the internal memo to Foulke lists 35 studies and reports.
In that memo, OSHA allows that asbestos can cause cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, but it plays down the risk to brake mechanics.
Many medical specialists disagree.
"Asbestos causes cancer, whether it is pulled out of a mountain, scraped off a steam pipe or shed from a brake shoe," says Dr. Michael Harbut, who has examined thousands of autoworkers for asbestos disease under a project funded by the Occupational Health Legal Rights Foundation, which is financed by units of the AFL-CIO.
"To withhold these warnings to mechanics who have no knowledge of asbestos or believe it's banned is unconscionable," said Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
Stern said he and other union officers hope to meet with senior OSHA officials this week to discuss Wainless' suspension.
"Meanwhile, [Wainless] continues to worry about his future because he's being punished for offending the Big Three automakers," Stern said. "There is a real fear that by this action the agency will intimidate other employees from doing what's right for the health and safety of the workers."