Cadmium settlement nets depot employees cash

Federal employees who were exposed to cadmium for several years at the Anniston, Ala., Army Depot were recently granted more than $1.7 million in back pay and interest.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the Anniston Army Depot reached the settlement in late April, after AFGE filed for environmental differential pay for 310 employees in May 1997. The employees had been exposed to cadmium since 1981. Employees who work in hazardous environments are entitled to a wage increase-known as environmental differential pay-for time spent working in hazardous environments.

Although the two sides reached an agreement, the Army depot does not acknowledge that employees were exposed to unhealthy work conditions, said George Worman, an attorney for the depot. Worman also said the settlement was not officially recognized as environmental differential pay, but was simply "in lieu of back pay."

Worman said that good working relations with employees and the union as well as employee safety were driving factors in coming to a compromise. "We felt it was a wise expenditure of money," he said.

Cadmium is a toxic metal generally found in industrial workplaces, particularly in welding. The general population is exposed to cadmium from breathing cigarette smoke or eating cadmium contaminated foods. Exposure to the toxin at very high levels or over a long period of time can damage the lungs, cause kidney disease, and irritate the digestive tract.

According to Worman, the depot was in accordance with the environmental health standards determined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But Charlotte Flowers, president of AFGE Local 1945 in Anniston, said that claim was debatable.

"We don't believe they are in compliance with the [OSHA] standards," she said.

Still, Flowers admitted that there was no empirical data demonstrating that an employee became ill due specifically to cadmium exposure at the depot. She said one employee was diagnosed by a doctor as showing symptoms characteristic of cadmium-related illness.

Worman and Flowers said both the depot and the union will continue to negotiate on a variety of issues, including environmental differential pay entitlement. Worman said the cadmium settlement represented "a blueprint of how we would conduct further negotiations."

AFGE, the largest federal employee union, was also a plaintiff in a recent settlement with the Corpus Christi Army Depot for employees exposed to asbestos over several years.

The Corpus Christi depot has filed an appeal with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, disputing an arbitrator's decision to award 2,000 depot employees $49 million for exposure to asbestos over several years.

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