Boeing Workers Long Exposed to Carcinogen Far Above Legal Limits

An industrial hygienist for the Boeing Co.’s Everett, Washington, plant warned in 2020 that hundreds of employees were at risk for developing cancer, regardless of any protective gear they were given, because of an industrial poison that has been a key ingredient in airplane production for decades.

Airborne levels of hexavalent chromium greatly exceeded the legally permissible exposure limit in the factory’s paint operations, compliance manager Jennifer Allen wrote in an email to colleagues arguing to eliminate the chemical in the manufacturing process.

Carcinogenic Chemical Still in Use 

The email was among hundreds of pages of internal corporate documents discussed in depositions of company officials last year and examined by the Everett Daily Herald. Hexavalent chromium, a long-established carcinogen, is still used by the company for its anti-corrosion properties despite the concerns Allen raised.

“As for employee health and safety, there is no chemical exposure more severe or of greater concern than chromate primer application in Boeing facilities enterprise-wide,” emailed Allen, an industrial hygienist specializing in workplace hazards.

Boeing Workers at Risk for Birth Defects from Chemical Exposure

Families of former factory workers are suing Boeing, claiming that chemicals caused catastrophic birth defects in their children. The cases span 40 years, involving two fathers who were mechanics at the Everett plant and one mother who worked at a factory on Boeing Field that has since been demolished.

“Boeing is choosing to use highly toxic chemicals every day in its operations,” plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Connett, a partner at Waters Kraus & Paul, told the newspaper. “OK, that’s fine. But you now have a heightened duty to make sure that your workers are protected from those chemicals. And unfortunately, what we have found is that too often at Boeing, it’s production that they prioritize, not safety of their workers.”

Boeing has denied that the birth defects were caused by chemical exposure, according to court filings. Company health and safety professionals have testified that Boeing has always taken adequate steps to protect its employees with respirators, ventilation and health monitoring.

The newspaper reported that in the early 2000s, the company lobbied to keep the regulatory limit “AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE,” according to an email related to lobbying efforts when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was updating its permissible exposure limit for hexavalent chromium.

But even after negotiating a higher limit for painting large aircraft parts — and getting a deadline extension from the state to comply with the rule — airborne chromium levels in some areas of the Everett facility still exceed the standard that took effect more than 10 years ago, the plant’s lead industrial hygienist testified in a deposition last January.

Among the deposition records, an annual air monitoring report from 2016 noted that hexavalent chromium levels still frequently exceeded a concentration of 25 micrograms per cubic meter in jobs involving the painting of large aircraft.

Deposition records also raise questions about whether safety rules are consistently enforced in the fast-paced factory environment.

A 2019 internal audit found safety lapses at the Everett Modification Center, including noncompliance for PPE use across the programs and work areas. Three of four workers interviewed were not using the correct type of respirators when spraying chromium primers. Four of 12 chemical users working in confined spaces did not have respirators.

In January 2020, the state Department of Labor and Industries assessed $4,800 in fines against the company after several security guards at Boeing’s Everett site complained of “headaches, irritated eyes, sporadic chest pains, and other breathing issues” as a result of chemical exposure.

How We Help Boeing Birth Defect Victims

Seek justice with the help of our experienced birth defects attorneys. Our alliance of birth defect victims’ attorneys has represented people like you affected by birth defects caused by toxic exposure at Boeing, aggressively fighting the corporate giants that have failed to protect vulnerable workers. If you or a loved one was exposed to chemicals while pregnant and now have a child who suffers from a life-altering birth defect like spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy, we can help.