WashCo Dems op-ed article

OP-ED: OHA Ignores Threat To Health

by John Maelan, Washington County Democrats Communications Committee Member

Crystal Weston (currently a Tigard-Tualatin school board member) used to work for the Oregon Health Authority. Used to. No, she wasn’t fired… she instead resigned as part of a settlement deal that allowed OHA to avoid responsibility for a medical condition that is both deadly and incurable (Multnomah Circuit Court #21CV45278).

Silicosis is a lung disease that primarily affects workers who breathe in silica dust. The disease is marked by inflammation and scarring in the lungs. Now, when using the proper safety controls, silicosis is preventable. However, between 40,000 and 50,000 people still die of it every year according to a Global Burden of Disease study of 2013. So, obviously, not every employer practices those safety controls. Naturally, the people most likely to be affected by this disease work in construction–specifically, stonework. And according to the American Lung Association about 2.5 million of these folks are at risk of contracting silicosis each and every year.

Do you like your new quartz kitchen countertop? Thank a person at risk for silicosis.

So where does Crystal Weston and the Oregon Health Authority come in on this story? Well, Weston was hired by OHA in 2018 as a coordinator for the Occupational Public Health Program. Which means, her job was to keep an eye out for threats to workers’ health. And it wasn’t long until Ms. Weston found such a threat and brought it to her bosses’ attention.

In 2019, Weston filed paperwork showing that silicosis should be investigated by OHA as a mandatorily reportable disease. Oregon frequently requires doctors to report instances of specific diseases so that OHA can find patterns of disease or contamination and take steps to protect public health. For instance, if there was a new illness affecting children who attend a certain elementary school, the child’s doctor may not be aware that his specific patient is part of a larger problem. However, if that doctor was required to report that disease occurrence, OHA would soon notice a whole bunch of doctors in the same area reporting the same thing and could take steps to address the source and contain the spread before other kids get sick.

So, really, all Ms. Weston was asking was for OHA to treat silicosis as they do any other such disease. That way, if a bunch of workers at a specific company get sick and all go to different doctors, OHA would still notice a pattern and intervene. After all, as mentioned, silicosis is preventable and if an intervention can prevent the death of Oregon workers with families to support that would be a good thing.

Unfortunately, not only did OHA refuse to allow follow up for silicosis using this method, they ostracized Weston for making such a stink about it. When Weston stood her ground, one high level manager became “visibly and audibly angry that Weston had brought up reasons why the action was not right.” But Weston continued to investigate silicosis, trying to amass data of the threat under the constraints of her job. Unfortunately, she couldn’t even get any cases with actual names without it falling under the reportable category. Consequently, she got stuck in a sea of red tape trying to get permission to use various less effective data sources.

As Ms. Weston said in an interview with the Washco Dems, “State lawmakers depend on accurate and transparent information from state agencies in order to debate issues, such as how to support small businesses while ensuring the safety of their workers. A working environment where public servants are fearful of solving problems or gathering information is a disservice to our lawmakers, and a disservice to Oregon.”

When Covid-19 hit, Weston was assigned to the critically important Incident Management Team created to deal with it and she was praised for her work. However, she was later inexplicably removed from that assignment after she once again lobbied for silicosis action. Frustrated, Weston then went to an agency personnel official complaining that she was being retaliated against because of her prior position regarding silicosis—but, sadly, nothing came of that.

Feeling that, as she said, “It’s unacceptable when hard working Oregonians receive a death sentence for supporting their families while unknowingly handling a dangerous product,” she decided to sue OHA.

Weston filed her suit in 2021, and it dragged on for years as lawyers for both sides filed motions back and forth until, finally, a settlement was reached. OHA would admit to no wrongdoing and Weston would get paid one year’s salary’s worth in one check on the condition that she resign. Exhausted after years of fighting a state agency with virtually unlimited legal resources, David settled with Goliath.

However, although Oregon refuses to, California apparently does track silicosis as a matter of course. And down there, they find out that the disease affects mostly Hispanic men in their prime. In fact, in an average year, ten people die from silicosis in the Golden State alone. And even if they don’t die right away, once sickened, victims can no longer work and suffer long term breathing difficulties that make them a burden on their families.

This is especially likely to happen when working with the new “artificial stone” that the industry is using that has been banned in Australia but dominates the American construction market. So why doesn’t Oregon track this terrible disease that, coincidentally, mostly affects Hispanics?

The fact is that Oregon has the resources to track this deadly disease and to save those workers and their families from needless suffering. Unfortunately, it simply chooses not to.

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