Left in the Dust: The dismantling of a U.S. workplace safety rule, and the political battle behind it

January 22, 2019, Reuters

vgb110NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – When Wardell Davis landed work with a Norfolk, Virginia, shipbuilding contractor in the fall of 2007, he felt lucky.

Then 24 years old, with no high school diploma, Davis had for years bounced between part-time jobs.

Unable to work, he lives on disability payments, and has brought suit against abrasives manufacturers and safety equipment providers he alleges failed to protect him. They deny responsibility for his failing health.

“If I ever would have thought that this would have happened to me, I would’ve never ever worked there,” he told Reuters, his words punctuated by coughs. “Ever.”

Davis was one of an estimated 11,500 shipyard and construction workers who U.S. regulators say are exposed each year to beryllium: a toxic, carcinogenic element laced through the coal waste often used in abrasive blasting grits. These workers lie at the heart of a little-known regulatory drama unfolding behind the Trump administration’s push to relax safety rules it deems burdensome to U.S. businesses.

he contractor, he says, promised better pay for grueling labor: blasting the hulls of U.S. Navy ships with coarsely ground coal particles to remove rust and paint. He recalls the fog of dust created as workers fired the crushed coal – a residue from coal-fired power plants – against the ship bottoms from high-powered hoses, moving through the tented blasting area in respirators and protective suits.

A year later, Davis found a better job with a plumbing and heating company. He became a father, but still found time to hit the YMCA most days for a swim, a lifelong passion. Then, in 2011, he began struggling to hold his breath under water; soon, he couldn’t hold it at all. He was dogged by a persistent cough, sweats and nausea.

In 2014, doctors at Norfolk’s Sentara Hospital found a “black foreign material” in his lungs. Davis successfully filed a disability claim for “pneumoconiosis/silicosis and/or interstitial fibrotic disease caused by exposure to abrasive blasting dust.” Four years and three biopsies later, Davis survives on a single lung.

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