KC-46 Pegasus tankers at the Boeing Everett Modification Center at Paine Field. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

KC-46 Pegasus tankers at the Boeing Everett Modification Center at Paine Field. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Ex-security guard sues Boeing, claiming chemical exposure

Holly Hawthorne says she got sick after working at a Paine Field hangar. Boeing declined to comment.

SEATTLE — A former Boeing Co. security officer is suing the company, alleging she suffered lasting health issues because of chemical sprays used by workers inside a hangar at Paine Field where she was stationed in 2019.

Holly Hawthorne began experiencing migraines, breathing problems and skin issues because she was repeatedly exposed to the toxins — industrial-grade “corrosion inhibiting compounds,” used in aircraft assembly and maintenance — without warning or protective gear, according to her attorney.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on April 7, accuses Boeing and Hawthorne’s employer, security service provider Allied Universal, of failing to protect her from the chemicals, even though the companies knew there would be negative health effects.

A spokesman for Boeing declined to comment on the claims.

Allied Universal did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Darrell Cochran, one of Hawthorne’s attorneys, says the case is the latest in a long history of workplace chemical-exposure claims against Boeing, dating back to the 1980s.

“It appears that Boeing engages 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 carcinogen to humans, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It has a variety of uses in many industries, including aerospace, where it’s applied during a chrome-plating process.

In September, a state-mandated cleanup plan was finalized for Boeing’s Everett manufacturing plant and grounds, outlining the steps the company must take in the coming years to remove various industrial pollutants that have seeped into the soil and groundwater below the plant in the past 50 years. Chromium is among the plant’s targeted “chemicals of concern,” known to exceed cleanup standards on the roughly 1,000-acre site, on the northeast corner of Paine Field.

The aerospace giant has other facilities at the airport, too, that aren’t covered by the cleanup. The building where Hawthorne allegedly worked is part of Boeing’s Everett Modification Center, at the south end of Paine Field.

Hawthorne, who began 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 Building 45-335, the structure is a “pre-manufactured metal building” with large roll-up doors for aircraft entry, made for assembly and testing of KC-46 tankers that Boeing is building for the U.S. Air Force.

While Hawthorne worked there, she alleges, Boeing employees repeatedly used Cor-Ban 35, an aerosol spray meant to prevent metal parts from rusting. She was also exposed to “chromium (VI) oxide,” also known as chromic acid, the lawsuit says. The legal complaint includes excerpts from safety sheets that warn that breathing fumes of both the chemicals can irritate the skin and respiratory tract.

Inhaling chromic acid repeatedly can lead to “nosebleeds, nasal congestion, erosion of the teeth, perforation of the nasal septum, chest pain and bronchitis,” according to the safety data sheet for the chemical.

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 may be harmed from exposure to hexavalent chromium,” says one CDC web page. “The level of exposure depends upon the dose, duration, and work being done.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposes strict workplace limits on airborne levels of the contaminant. It also requires that employers provide employees with access to standardized safety data sheets for any 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 worried about the effects of the chemicals, but Hawthorne wasn’t given that chance.

The lawsuit alleges that Boeing and Allied Universal “had actual knowledge that injury was certain to result from unprotected exposure to the aerosolized chemical sprays, including CORBAN-35 and Chromium (VI) Oxide, used in the unventilated Building 45-335.”

“As a result of the misconduct and unlawful acts described above,” says the lawsuit, Hawthorne “has suffered, and continues to suffer, general and special damages, including negligent infliction of emotional distress, mental anguish, emotional, physical and mental pain and suffering, past medical expenses, attorneys’ fees and costs, and other general and special damages.”

The lawsuit does not demand a certain amount but states, “the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.”

Hawthorne was eventually reassigned to another building but experienced some degree of “retaliation or isolation” for the request, said Cochran.

“For a period of time, the company kept her on, but the persistence of the medical condition ultimately required her to stop working,” he said. “She recently moved down to Las Vegas hoping that the drier, warmer air would help ameliorate the effects.”

Similar lawsuits against the company have made it all the way to the state Supreme Court, setting legal standards for workplace injury lawsuits.

In 1987, when Boeing began working with a new woven fiberglass cloth containing phenol-formaldehyde resin at its Auburn facility, employees suffered rashes, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Fourteen of them sued the company four years later, alleging Boeing knew that level of chemical exposure would make employees sick.

In the case, Birklid v. Boeing Co., the state’s highest court held that the plaintiffs “demonstrated facts sufficient to justify a jury in finding a deliberate intention by Boeing to injure them.”

The company settled the case out of court for an undisclosed amount, according to a 1997 report by The Seattle Times.

Years later, retired Boeing employee Gary Walston sued the company over another claim of chemical exposure in the 1980s, alleging he inhaled asbestos at a Seattle plant and later developed mesothelioma as a result. Before the case was resolved, he died of the disease.

The following year, in 2014, the Washington Supreme Court sided with Boeing, holding that the Walston couldn’t prove Boeing had “actual knowledge” that the asbestos exposure “was certain to cause injury to the plaintiff.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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