In 1971 the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first began to regulate asbestos exposure limits in the workplace. Just a year later in June of 1972, after concerted pressure from labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO, OSHA promulgated a definitive standard for maximum exposure limits that the medical and scientific communities hoped would protect workers not just from asbestosis, but also from mesothelioma and other types of asbestos-related cancer. But OSHA’s standards alone proved too little for Bob Ehlert.
As a member of Local 26 Plumbers and Pipefitters Union in Bremerton, Washington, Bob worked as a welder and pipefitter at shipyards and industrial sites all up and down western Washington. From Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS), to paper and pulp mills run by Georgia Pacific in Bellingham, Weyerhaeuser in Longview, and St. Regis in Tacoma, to the Shell and Texaco refineries in Anacortes and Arco refinery in Cherry Point – Bob Ehlert worked there welding and fitting pipe.
When he worked building the Arco Refinery at Cherry Point, Washington in 1971, Bob was constantly exposed to the asbestos dust created by the insulators working nearby. Arco claimed that the facility was built with non-asbestos insulation. But that was before OSHA’s attempts to curb the levels of asbestos dust had been implemented, and the attorneys from Bergman Draper Oslund obtained the forty year old invoices from a contractor to prove Arco’s claim wasn’t true.
When Bob worked at Weyerhaeuser in 1972, however, OSHA’s asbestos regulations were supposed to be in force. Supposed to be. Because at the Weyerhaeuser mill in 1972, Bob recalled working in clouds of asbestos dust as old asbestos insulation was torn out and new asbestos insulation was cut and sawn as it was installed on large industrial boilers.
OSHA’s new asbestos regulations didn’t save Bob Ehlert because the companies that owned and operated the sites on which Bob worked did not care enough to enforce them. Instead, they continued their unsafe operations, business as usual. Had the premises owners simply enforced the asbestos standards adopted by OSHA, perhaps Bob would not have died from mesothelioma on an Easter Sunday at the age of just 66, leaving behind a wife who was 50 years old with children and grandchildren. Maybe Bob would still be spending weekends out on his boat, enjoying a little salmon fishing. The OSHA regulations were put into place to protect workers like Bob, but safety standards can’t work when corporations refuse to live by them.