Sick welders seek justice from KFM

Oakland Tribune, August 24, 2006

The welders connecting the foundation of the new Bay Bridge to the rest of its structure labored in confined spaces up to 40 feet below the waterline in 150-degree temperatures while inhaling fumes measured above the legal limit for manganese.

A pile driver works on a platform of planks lashed together around a pile for a tower crane platform in 2003. (Courtesy

But when the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) slapped KFM Joint Venture with 17 citations last June, the state agency declined to cite the contractor for ignoring the claims of as many as 48 sick welders who blamed their illnesses on manganese overexposure, leaving them to fend for themselves in Bay Area clinics and courts.

Extended exposure to high levels of manganese, an element common in welding rods, can cause vomiting, flu-like symptoms, paralysis and permanent damage to the part of the brain in control of motor function, according to the National Safety Council.

After a 2004 Cal/OSHA investigation found that KFM knew about manganese overexposure on the Bay Bridge but had done little to solve the problem, a group of sick welders sought out Rosemarie Bowler, a lecturer at San Francisco State University who researches the toxic effects of manganese on the brain.

Months later, when she had secured funding and approval for the project, Bowler and her colleagues examined the welders, finding a correlation between the manganese overexposure the welders were subject to on the Bay Bridge site and their illnesses.

“They had increased respiratory problems, and their working memory was impacted from the manganese,” Bowler said.

Len Welsh, acting Cal/OSHA division chief, said the evidence linking Bay Bridge manganese levels to illness “was a little too problematic” to issue citations.

“They found manganese in their blood,” Welsh said. “There are lots of things in the blood — that doesn’t mean you have a disease.”

According to state regulations, work-related illnesses “involving chronic irreversible disease” are required to be recorded in the Log 300 — the document at the core of the other citations — even when the illness does not lead to missed days of work or restricted duty.

“It’s really difficult to classify something as chronic and irreversible,” said Janice Prudhomme, the Department of Health Services official responsible for evaluating Bowler’s data and other manganese research for Cal/OSHA.

In her report, Prudhomme wrote that although the welders “experienced symptoms consistent with over-exposures to manganese;” Bowler’s diagnosis did not qualify the illnesses as chronic irreversible disease.

“It’s definitely a chronic disease,” said Robert M. Park, a researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who collaborated with Bowler on her study of the welders. “Even in welders, the few studies done have found some permanent effects.”

Manganism, the neurological disease associated with manganese overexposure, is irreversible at higher levels than the researchers recorded in the welders’ blood, Park said. The exposures faced by manganese miners and smelters usually puts them at a much higher risk than welders. But Park said the Bay Bridge welders were in an unusual position, working in confined spaces with sometimes substandard respirators and ventilation.

The Bay Bridge crews worked in the tight spaces between the six 8-foot-wide steel cylinders at the core of each support pillar and the steel plates that separate them.

Those confined spaces may have factored into manganese levels measured above the legal limit at least five times between May 2003 and March 2004 by IHI Environmental, an industrial hygiene consulting firm with an office in Emeryville.

Documents related to a Cal/OSHA investigation show that KFM contracted IHI to monitor welding fumes for metal content, but expressly asked the company to not analyze the data. On at least one occasion, IHI reported its findings to KFM anyway, notifying the contractor that manganese levels in welding fumes were over the legal limit four times in 2003.

Forty-three Bay Bridge welders filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court against KFM, IHI and a number of welding rod manufacturers in May 2005. In the suit, the welders claim KFM and the other defendants were negligent, failing to alert workers to the hazards of manganese exposure or address the problem when they fell ill.

A spokesman for KFM declined to comment on issues related to manganese due to the pending litigation.

Phil Weltin, an attorney representing the welders, said the conditions on the Bay Bridge site set these workers apart from those involved in other manganese-related lawsuits. Welding rod manufacturers in other cases have argued the only way a worker can inhale enough manganese dust to cause health problems is by welding in confined spaces — like those on the Bay Bridge site, Weltin said.

“These guys were getting sick,” he said. “KFM just ignored it.”

Before a Madison County, Ill., jury awarded Larry Elam $1 million in 2003, most lawsuits against welding rod manufacturers had failed. Elam worked as a welder for 30 years before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995. The jury found a connection between his illness and the manganese in welding rods produced by Lincoln Electric Company, one of the defendants in the Bay Bridge lawsuit.

Weltin said he expects the case to go to trial in 2007.