SEATTLE — A former Boeing Co. security guard is suing the company, alleging she suffered long-lasting health issues from chemical sprays used by workers inside a hangar at Paine Field where she was stationed in 2019.
Holly Hawthorne started having migraines, breathing problems and skin problems because she was repeatedly exposed to the toxins – industrial grade “corrosion inhibiting compounds”, used in the assembly and maintenance of planes – without warning or protective equipment, according to his lawyer.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on April 7, accuses Boeing’s employer and Hawthorne, the security services provider Ally Universalfor not protecting her from the chemicals, even though the companies knew there would be negative health effects.
A Boeing spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations.
Allied Universal did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Darrell Cochran, one of Hawthorne’s attorneys, said the case was the latest in a long history of workplace chemical exposure claims against Boeing dating back to the 1980s.
“Boeing appears to be engaging in a practice of exposing its employees (to toxins) as a cost of doing business,” Cochran said.
One of the two chemicals named in the lawsuit is a form of hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It has a variety of uses in many industries, including aerospace, where it is applied during a chrome plating process.
In September, a state-mandated cleaning plan was finalized for Boeing’s Everett manufacturing plant and grounds, outlining steps the company needs to take in the coming years to eliminate various industrial pollutants that have seeped into the soil and groundwater beneath the factory over the past 50 years. Chromium is among the “chemicals of concern” targeted by the plant, known to exceed cleaning standards at the roughly 1,000-acre site at the northeast corner of Paine Field.
The aerospace giant also has other facilities at the airport, which are not covered by the cleaning. The building where Hawthorne reportedly worked is part of Boeing’s Everett Modification Center at the south end of Paine Field.
Hawthorne, who started working for Allied Universal in July 2018, was assigned in November 2019 to work in “Building 45-335,” which lacked “adequate ventilation systems,” the lawsuit says.
According to the construction company that erected the building 45-335the structure is a “pre-engineered metal building” with large rolling doors for aircraft entry, designed for assembly and testing of KC-46 tankers that Boeing builds for the US Air Force.
While Hawthorne was working there, she claims, Boeing employees repeatedly used Cor Ban 35, an aerosol intended to prevent metal parts from rusting. She was also exposed to “chromium (VI) oxide,” also known as chromic acid, the lawsuit states. The legal complaint includes excerpts from safety data sheets which warn that breathing the vapors of the two chemicals can irritate the skin and respiratory tract.
Repeated inhalation of chromic acid can lead to “nosebleeds, nasal congestion, tooth erosion, perforation of the nasal septum, chest pain, and bronchitis,” according to the chemical’s safety data sheet. .
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers all hexavalent chromium compounds to be “occupational carcinogens,” according to the agency’s website.
“Workers can be injured by exposure to hexavalent chromium”, says a CDC webpage. “The level of exposure depends on the dose, the duration and the work performed.”
Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict boundaries in the workplace on atmospheric levels of the contaminant. It also requires employers to provide employees with access to standardized safety data sheets for all chemicals used in the workplace.
According to the lawsuit, Allied Universal had previously allowed employees assigned to the building to request reassignment and refuse to work there if an employee was concerned about the effects of the chemicals, but Hawthorne was not so lucky.
The lawsuit alleges that Boeing and Allied Universal “knew that injury was certain to result from unprotected exposure to chemical aerosols, including CORBAN-35 and chromium(VI) oxide, used in the unventilated building. 45-335”.
“By reason of the misconduct and unlawful acts described above,” the lawsuit states, Hawthorne “has suffered and continues to suffer general and special damages, including the negligent infliction of emotional distress, mental anguish , emotional, physical and mental pain and suffering, past medical expenses, attorneys’ fees and expenses and other general and special damages.
The lawsuit does not require a certain amount but states that “the amount in dispute exceeds $75,000”.
Hawthorne was eventually reassigned to another building but suffered some degree of “retaliation or isolation” for the request, Cochran said.
“For a while the company kept her on, but her continued health eventually forced her to stop working,” he said. “She recently moved to Las Vegas hoping the drier, warmer air would help improve the effects.”
Similar lawsuits against the company made their way all the way to the state Supreme Court, setting legal standards for employment injury lawsuits.
In 1987, when Boeing began working with a new woven fiberglass fabric containing phenol-formaldehyde resin at its Auburn plant, employees suffered rashes, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Fourteen of them sued the company four years later, alleging Boeing knew the level of chemical exposure would make employees sick.
In Birklid v. Boeing Co., the state’s highest court ruled that the plaintiffs “proved facts sufficient to warrant a jury finding that Boeing deliberately intended to injure them.”
Years later, retired Boeing employee Gary Walston sued the company over another chemical exposure allegation in the 1980s, alleging he inhaled asbestos at a Seattle factory and he then developed mesothelioma. Before the case was solved, he died of the disease.
The following year, in 2014, the Washington Supreme Court sided with Boeing, ruling that Walston could not prove that Boeing had “actual knowledge” that asbestos exposure “was certain to cause injuries to the plaintiff”.