William J. Van Buskirk was a machinist who worked at Los Alamos for over three decades.
Van Buskirk started working at Los Alamos in 1943, a year after he graduated from high school. While his brothers entered the military, a polio-related disability kept Van Buskirk out of the armed forces. As a machinist during the war, he ground and milled beryllium components for the atomic bombs, including those dropped at the Trinity site and on Japan. After the war, he continued to work for Los Alamos in the Shops Department until 1979.
In 1971, Van Buskirk was diagnosed with berylliosis, a lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium. His worsening condition caused him to have to leave his position at Los Alamos, for which he initially accepted a small settlement. The experience led Van Buskirk to campaign for the rights of workers exposed to hazardous materials during their work in government-funded laboratories. As a result of Van Buskirk’s testimony and the hard work of a large number of people across the country, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act was passed, which provided money to pay damages and hospital bills for workers who developed diseases such as cancer and berylliosis. The EEOICP has paid over $10 billion in workers’ claims through June 2017.
Van Buskirk died from complications of berylliosis, also called chronic beryllium disease, on May 9, 2012.