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Workers at Honeywell handled beryllium with their bare hands, Ross says. He saw it in every form: sanded, melted, chipped, cut, bent. "You just picked it up, if it was small enough of a piece."
Ross also remembers the asbestos remediation that went on at Honeywell in the late 1980s and early '90s. The workers removing the asbestos in his department wore protective suits and respirators. The abatement took place behind a plastic sheet, which opened and closed and sometimes fell down. "We're in the same area working, with nothing on ... running the machines," Ross says. In the mornings, the delivery trucks that ran up and down the halls inside the facility kicked up the dust "just like driving down a dusty road."
Two years ago, when prescription medication no longer seemed to help Ross' chronic bronchitis, his doctor sent him to Dr. Thomas Beller, a pulmonary specialist with an office at 64th Street and Prospect. Beller knew about the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, begun in 2001 to assist workers and contractors suffering from illnesses linked to toxic exposures at Department of Energy sites. Through Beller, Ross learned that he has asbestosis and that he is eligible for a settlement of up to $150,000 from the Department of Labor through the EEOICP.
"Before I saw Dr. Beller, I didn't have a clue what was going on," Ross says. "I didn't really know how bad I was until he was explaining it to me."
But money won't right the wrongs that Ross and his fellow workers have endured, he says. "I feel like they just used a bunch of people. I know two who died just last week, both in their early 60s."
Macy McKinley Roberts — friends call him "Mack" — thought he was one of the lucky ones when he was hired at the Kansas City Plant in 1968.
"I didn't think no blacks were qualified to work at a plant like Bendix because they didn't hire any of us," Roberts says. "I guessed you had to be a genius or something. Once I got inside the plant, I saw so many jobs that we were qualified — and, some of us, overqualified — to do."
Roberts was familiar with precision microscopes from his classes at Manual High School, the vocational high school, and thought he could work as a parts inspector. Instead, he was put "on the broom" as a custodian in the maintenance department.
Roberts and his co-workers cleaned in their street clothes. He could feel the sting of hydrochloric acid on his skin when he walked past certain doors. Roberts remembers wearing protective gear on only one occasion. The job paid overtime. "They called it the MOCA cleanup," he says. "It was considered a big deal." So he volunteered for it.
MOCA (from the mixture of methylene and chloroaniline, pronounced mocha) is an epoxylike material that was used in the aerospace, weapons and electronic industries until 1973, when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration ruled that it could cause cancer. All Roberts knew was that it looked as though a mixture of corn flakes, Wheaties and maple syrup had exploded, covering the walls and countertops of a lab.
"We had ladders and scrapers and everything," he says. "It was a mess. We took it lightly. Some of us would pull off our masks and talk while we worked."
The MOCA cleanup took several days and two dozen workers. At the end of each day, Roberts says, volunteers were instructed to take off their gear and discard it in certain areas. He never saw where the buckets of MOCA were taken.