IBEW members who worked at Department of Energy sites like the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, pictured, may be eligible for a free medical screening.
Credit: Department of Energy

When Mike Finn, a retired journeyman from Portsmouth,  Ohio, Local 575, first found out about the Building Trades National Medical Screening Program, it didn't seem urgent. But eventually he signed up, and it may have saved his life.

Retired Local 68 member Joe Cousineau, pictured, took advantage of the BTMed screening program. "The only reason any of this worked is because of that screening, which caught the cancer early. It probably saved me, and it was free and convenient," he said.

"I didn't jump on it at first, but then my friends were doing it, so I thought, 'Why not?'" Finn said. "I'm glad I did, because we probably wouldn't have found it without the screening," Finn said of his diagnosis of berylliosis, which is a result of inhaling beryllium, most likely from his time working construction at a nuclear site.

Often, health problems from work don't arise until years later. That was the case for Finn, who worked for a number of contractors.

"The work was fine. Just regular construction work. But we didn't know exactly what we were working on," he said.

Finn isn't alone in finding out about health complications from past work at nuclear sites. Joe Cousineau, a retired member of Denver Local 68, worked for a contractor at Rocky Flats for three years in the '90s. It was good, steady work at a time when there wasn't much else going on, and it paid a lot of overtime. Plus, the workers rarely went through the barbed-wire fence, where the greater danger was.

"It was a pretty good gig," Cousineau said. "And we didn't get near the real stuff. We didn't want to."

Both Finn and Cousineau took advantage of the Building Trades National Medical Screening Program, or BTMed. It's a free medical screening that's available to former construction workers who were previously employed at Department of Energy nuclear weapons sites. In some cases, participants can even be eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

Started in 1996, the program is administered by the Center for Construction Research and Training, also known as CPWR, the health and safety research center of North America's Building Trades Unions. The test is available at more than 225 sites across the country, and eligible people can get the screening once every three years.

"We're proud to administer a program that has served building trades workers all across the country for more than 25 years. It's through BTMed that construction workers who worked on a DOE site can monitor their health. And their health is our number one priority," CPWR Executive Director Chris Cain said.

Those who worked at DOE sites may have been exposed to hazards like asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, silica or various solvents, which can cause cancer and other serious, even fatal, health problems. A common condition that can occur is lung disease from breathing in dust, fumes, vapors or gasses. When these substances are inhaled, they can affect the lungs in two different ways: airway obstruction or scarring of the lung tissue. The BTMed screening is designed to look for possible signs of these symptoms as well as other health issues so patients can catch them early and get treated as quickly as possible.

"The exam is better than what you get from a regular doctor," said Gary Hom, a retired Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 member who now works as an outreach coordinator and work history interviewer for the program. "It's way more thorough."

BTMed has provided over 44,500 medical screening exams and 9,150 low-dose CT scans to former DOE construction workers, and more than 6,500 of those exams and 1,150 of the CT scans have been for electricians. Among the electricians who received a chest X-ray, 17.5% were found to have changes consistent with pneumoconiosis, a type of lung disease caused by inhaling certain dust particles like silica and asbestos. And for the electricians who had a lung function test, 41.8% were found to have abnormal results.

Hom said that a lot of people are afraid to find out whether they have something serious and put the test off.

"You need to know," Hom said. 'It's two hours every three years. Isn't that worth it for your health?"

Some workers may also be eligible for compensation. Separate from the BTMed screening, the compensation program is run by the Department of Labor. It provides payments and medical benefits to qualified workers who were diagnosed with conditions including radiogenic cancer, chronic beryllium disease, beryllium sensitivity or chronic silicosis as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica while employed at covered DOE facilities.

The BTMed program screens people who worked at 35 Department of Energy sites. "It's through BTMed that construction workers who worked on a DOE site can monitor their health. And their health is our number one priority," CPWR Executive Director Chris Cain said.

For those who qualify, they are given what's called a "white card" that covers any treatment needed for the accepted condition. In Finn's case, he found out he was eligible for $150,000 in compensation, plus the white card.

"It covers anything related to my beryllium exposure," he said. "And the process itself was pretty straightforward."

Hom noted that another benefit of the BTMed screening is that the doctors can see changes in participants over time.

"Years ago, we didn't know the dangers of asbestos and beryllium and all that. And it can take a long time for symptoms to show up," Hom said. "It's better to catch it early."

The screening consists of two steps: a work history interview and a medical exam. In step one, a specially trained building trades worker conducts the interview to find out whether the participant came into contact with any hazardous materials. In step two, the participant receives the free medical exam to test for work-related health conditions, as well as any other health problems. Following the exam, the participant receives a letter indicating any medical findings and assistance with referrals for further care.

In Cousineau's case, the screening turned up something that may not have been related to his time at Rocky Flats but still required medical attention. During one of his CT scans, the doctors noticed something in his liver, so they referred him to his primary doctor, who then sent him to an oncologist who found a small tumor. Cousineau was treated with radiation and put on a systemic anti-cancer regimen. Now there's no sign of cancer, and his liver is functioning normally.

"The only reason any of this worked is because of that screening, which caught the cancer early," Cousineau said. "It probably saved me, and it was free and convenient."

Cousineau, Finn and Hom all stressed how easy it is to get the screening, and to get one as early as possible.

"Take advantage of it," Cousineau said. "It could save your life."

To find out more about the free screening, including how to get one, go to www.btmed.org or email btmed@btmed.org. You can also call 1-800-866-9663.