Updated Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 12:13 PM
Chris Seavoy and Joe Schmidt say they were sent to remodel a Bellevue indoor gun range with no protective gear or instructions about how to stay safe from toxic lead dust. There was no decontamination area.
In the following weeks, Schmidt developed tremors in addition to the headaches, stomachaches, lost appetite, fatigue and irritability that he and Seavoy both experienced — symptoms consistent with but not proof of acute lead exposure.
In November, blood tests showed them with so much of the dangerous metal they had to be pulled off the job at Wade’s Eastside Guns.
Seavoy and Schmidt, both ironworkers, are among dozens of construction workers and firing-range employees who were exposed to excess lead, sparking multiple government investigations and a lawsuit.
Three children and two women in workers’ households also tested positive for excess lead, suspected to have been brought home on workers’ clothes, boots and tools.
A 15-year King County health official said it is the first case of its kind she has seen. A state occupational-health monitor called it “significant, even historical.”
Eight former employees sued Wade’s in King County Superior Court on Tuesday, claiming that they were sickened by lead, that safety laws were violated and that wastes were washed down storm drains and dumped on a hillside. Construction workers have not filed a lawsuit.
Wade’s and general contractor S.D. Deacon said some mistakes were made but they don’t believe workers were permanently harmed. Wade Gaughran, owner of the firing range, said he is unaware of any improper disposal and that if anyone did that, “they should be prosecuted for it.”
He said his employees were given respirators but often had to be reminded to use them.
The state Department of Labor and Industries is investigating potential workplace health violations.
The Department of Ecology is checking into whether soil and storm drains were contaminated, and how hazardous construction debris was handled.
Public Health – Seattle & King County is looking into potential lead exposure of workers’ families and of shooting-range customers.
Lead vapors and dust are released when bullets are fired, and bullets also can shatter on impact.
Forty-seven construction and gun-range workers tested had elevated blood-lead levels, and 24 showed symptoms possibly resulting from lead exposure. Test results weren’t available for 63 of the 159 total workers.
One construction worker suffered cramps and frequently vomited at work, Seavoy and Schmidt said, before blood testing showed a lead level three times higher than the amount requiring mandatory removal from the work site by state standard.
Abatement crews have removed lead from some workers’ homes and cars, taken away contaminated clothing, bedding and toys, and cleaned rooms in a hotel where workers stayed.
Health officials are taking the incident seriously because inhaled or ingested lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, cardiovascular system and gastrointestinal system, said King County Environmental Health Director Ngozi Oleru.
“For children we are very concerned,”Oleru said. “The reason why children are really vulnerable is because they are developing these systems at a young age. If they’re exposed to lead their chances of damage are that much higher.”
Despite those risks, Oleru said, “Over time those levels will come down and they should be OK as long as there’s no continuing exposure.”
It’s a confusing message to workers, who also have heard experts say there is no safe level of lead.
Gaughran said “things could have been done better” and that he has beefed up measures to protect his employees. The safety of construction workers was the responsibility of the contractor, he said.
Bill Valela, director of business development for Deacon, said his company has protocols in place to protect workers, and is following them.
“There were indications that some people were not following the protocols way back in the beginning,” Valela said. “When we became aware of it, we made sure and instituted the protections to ensure the people be safe.”
Levels of protection depend on the tasks and locations workers are assigned, he said.
Gaughran had two goals when construction began last September: to remove and mine lead-contaminated sand, and to add a second floor to the firing range.
A 10-foot-high sand berm has stopped bullets and accumulated lead since the firing range and adjacent gun shop opened in 1996. Workers have periodically mined the sand for valuable lead.
Workers last fall removed the berm entirely and installed mechanical bullet traps, which Gaughran said will eliminate the need for messy mining in the future.
Sand was moved to the parking lot, where lead was screened out. The sifted sand was sacked and carted off in 20 semi trucks to a Missouri recycler.
Moving the sand exposed construction workers to lead, Schmidt said. Each time a front-end loader scooped up sand, he said, “Plumes of this dust would go everywhere and fill the whole room.”
Thick dust also covered nooks and crannies disturbed during demolition and construction of the second floor. “We started realizing this is lead, this isn’t dirt. You look like the Tin Man when you get it on you,” Schmidt said.
It wasn’t the first time Wade’s got in trouble with workplace-safety inspectors.
In 2010, Wade’s did “a big, dirty job” mining the sand and moving it away from the back wall, Gaughran said. “We had so much lead in here it was starting to cause structural issues with the building,” bowing out a concrete wall.
Workers saved the wall by installing a barrier of concrete blocks. When one employee showed symptoms of lead exposure, Labor and Industries (L&I) opened an investigation, according to agency records.
L&I found that routine tasks such as sweeping, collecting brass casings and shoveling sand into the berm exposed workers to an amount of lead that required them to have their blood tested on a regular basis.
L&I fined Wade’s $350 for hiring workers without first checking their blood lead (new hires tend to be shooters with higher-than-average lead levels), not doing twice-a-year blood draws, and failing to protect workers with appropriate, fitted respirators and high-efficiency vacuum filters.
A compliance plan for the current construction job reported that dust and fiberglass insulation were severely contaminated, and called for a decontamination chamber, calculation of lead exposure for specific tasks, blood testing of workers doing high-exposure tasks, and other safety measures.
Lead other than in the sand berm would not be removed, but would be “managed,” according to the plan.
When workers from subcontractor Brooks Steel Fabrication arrived on site, they had no idea how to protect themselves from lead, said Seavoy, the foreman.
Seavoy bought half-face respirators for his crew. “We thought we were being safe,” he said.
A Deacon safety director often made sure workers were wearing hard hats and were protected against falls, Seavoy said. “Not once did he ever ask us about lead.”
Three Wade’s employees and five construction workers were later found to have so much lead in their blood they were removed from work.
Ironworker Manny Romo said he experienced constipation, swollen feet, numbness in his hands and difficulty concentrating. Even now, he said, “My thought process is shot.”
Romo’s wife, 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son had elevated blood lead — his son more than most of the construction workers.
A lead-abatement firm cleaned Romo’s Auburn apartment and removed contaminated toys, stuffed animals, furniture and clothes while the family stayed at a hotel over Christmas. Still concerned about possible lead exposure, the family moved this month.
Contaminated belongings taken from Seavoy include his work clothes, boots and welding tools. He said he doesn’t have $2,000 to replace the gear he needs to work again, and doesn’t know how he will pay his overdue rent.
Brooks attorney David Smith said the company incurred “several hundred thousand dollars of expense” testing, cleaning and abating homes, and was later fired from the job.
“Big, big mistake”
One way to reduce lead exposure would have been to remove it all from the building before construction.
Rick Gleason, a University of Washington lecturer in occupational health, said the law doesn’t require that, and other safety measures could have prevented lead workers’ exposure.
But another health expert familiar with the incident said it was a “big, big mistake” not to do so.
Gaughran said he couldn’t close the firing range to remove lead because he needed the cash flow for his construction loan. The range stayed open for business during the day while construction — still not complete — took place at night.
He’s had to close the range far more than planned, Gaughran said, but a sharp increase in gun sales has offset the financial loss.
At Public Health’s request, Gaughran has posted signs warning customers that lead could pose a health risk during construction. He said he doesn’t believe there’s any risk to customers, and suspects Public Health is driven by an anti-gun bias.
The lead levels found in his workers’ blood “are let-people-know-what’s-going-on levels, they’re not you’re-dying levels,” Gaughran said.
As for the construction worker with three times the maximum allowed lead, S.D. Deacon’s Valela said, “He’s doing fine. That’s the case with any of these people that have short-duration exposures, which is the case here.”
Todd Schoonover, program manager of L&I’s adult blood-lead epidemiology and surveillance program, said the most-exposed worker’s blood-lead level was far above a threshold “considered scary-high to medical practitioners and public health people.”
It is encouraging, Schoonover said, that workers’ lead levels have dropped significantly since November.
The exposure of so many workers is disturbing, the UW’s Gleason said, because it was preventable. With proper protection for workers, “you should really have no appreciable increase in lead” in your body.
State law allows fines of up to $70,000 for safety standards by the largest employers, but most fines are significantly lower, L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said. The investigation could take up to six months.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Facts about lead exposure
Eating or breathing lead can cause a host of medical problems in adults and children, including learning disabilities, decreased bone and muscle growth, kidney damage, nerve disorders and fertility problems.
The stakes are especially high for young children.
There is no safe level of lead exposure.
Fortunately, our exposure to lead, and the amount of lead typically found in our blood, has dropped significantly since lead was eliminated from household paints and gasoline.
But old lead sources — including paint in older homes, and lead spewed over many Puget Sound communities by the now-closed Asarco smelter near Tacoma — continue to pose risks.
Simple precautions include these:
• Wash hands after working or playing outdoors, especially before eating;
• Clean with a damp mop or vacuum with a HEPA filter.
• Get professional help or expert advice if older paint is peeling or will be sanded.
• If you visit a gun range, wash afterward with de-leading soap. Stay away if pregnant, and keep kids under 6 at home.
Source: Public Health – Seattle & King County
Photos by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times
Ironworkers Chris Seavoy, left, and Joe Schmidt were pulled off a construction job at Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue last November after tests showed too much lead in their blood. Dozens of people were exposed to excess lead, sparking investigations and a lawsuit.
Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times
A sign on the door of Wade's warns those entering the shooting range of the dangers of lead exposure. A lawsuit by former employees claims they were sickened by lead, that safety laws were violated and that wastes were washed down storm drains. Wade’s and the general contractor say they don’t believe workers at the site suffered permanent harm.
Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times
Owner Wade Gaughran says “things could have been done better” and that he has beefed up measures to protect his employees.