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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road on Sunday, April 21, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Long live the Speedway! Mukilteo’s main drag won’t be renamed

The public shot down the mayor’s idea to change the name: 77% voted ‘No’ in an online survey, with 95% opposed on Facebook.

Motorcyclist dies in crash on East Marine View Drive in Everett

Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, a motorcycle and a vehicle crashed into each other at the intersection of 11th street and East Marine View Drive.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Darrington in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Motorcyclist dies in crash on Highway 530

Jeremy Doyle, 46, was riding east near Darrington when he crashed into the side of a car that was turning left.

The Marysville School District office on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘Financially insolvent’ Marysville schools to get unprecedented oversight

Superintendent Chris Reykdal will convene a first-of-its-kind Financial Oversight Committee, he wrote in a letter Tuesday.

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett’s first Black principal retires after 51 years

In her office, Betty Cobbs kept a black-and-white photo of herself at age 5: “I am right there, with dreams of becoming an educator.”

Junelle Lewis, right, daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
On Juneteenth: ‘We can always say that there is hope’

The Snohomish County NAACP is co-sponsoring a celebration Saturday near Snohomish, with speakers, music and food.

Granite Falls
Man, 35, dies from heart attack while hiking Lake 22

The man suffered a heart attack about 1½ miles into the 6-mile hike east of Granite Falls on Friday, authorities said.

36 hours after final show, Everett radio host Charlye Parker, 80, dies

When Parker got into radio, she was a rarity: a woman in a DJ booth. For the past 12 years, she hosted weekend country music shows at KXA.

Homeowners Jim and Chris Hall stand beneath their new heat pump, at right, inside their Whidbey Island home on Thursday, Sep. 7, 2023, near Langley, Washington. The couple, who are from Alaska, have decreased their use of their wood burning stove to reduce their carbon footprint. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County to start ‘kicking gas’ in push for all-electric homes

Last year, 118 Whidbey Island homes installed energy-efficient heat pumps. A new campaign aims to make the case for induction stoves now, too.

Dr. Scott Macfee and Dr. Daniel Goodman outside of the Community Health Center on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett CHC doctors, feeling like ‘commodities,’ speak up on ailing system

At the Community Health Center of Snohomish County, doctors say they feel like “rats getting off a sinking ship.” They want it to get better.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Man charged with shooting at ex-girlfriend, child in Mountlake Terrace

The man, 21, showed up to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and opened fire through the door, new court records say.

People walk along Olympic Avenue past Lifeway Cafe and Olympic Theater that currently hosts Lifeway Church on Friday, July 7, 2023 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Arlington churches waged covert ‘battle’ against Pride event, records show

Sermons, emails and interviews reveal how an LGBTQ+ nonprofit became the target of a covert campaign by local evangelical leaders.