Reducing beryllium exposure
OSHA proposes to significantly strengthen its rule on exposure to the versatile but potentially deadly metal
OSHA is proposing to dramatically lower its decades-old permissible exposure limit for beryllium to one-tenth of the current level.
The current PEL for the metal is 2.0 micrograms of respirable beryllium per cubic meter of air. The agency’s proposal would set the PEL at 0.2 µg/m3. An official notice of proposed rulemaking was published Aug. 7.
The rule is a “long overdue step” toward better protecting workers from harmful beryllium exposures, OSHA administrator David Michaels said during an Aug. 6 press conference.
Beryllium exposure has been linked to lung cancer, and workers who inhale beryllium particles are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease, a potentially fatal and incurable lung condition. According to OSHA, the new rule would protect about 35,000 general-industry workers, as well as prevent nearly 50 serious illnesses and 100 deaths from chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer each year.
OSHA estimates that the proposed rule would cost workplaces about $37 million per year but would result in $575 million in annual benefits for the next 60 years.
Other requirements in the proposed rule include:
- Medical surveillance
- Limiting access to high-exposure areas to essential personnel
- Providing employees with personal protective equipment and additional training
The proposal’s requirements are supported by industry and labor, Michaels said, adding that their help in developing the rule gave the agency “momentum” to complete the rule. Specifically, the United Steelworkers and material manufacturer Materion Corp. took part in a historic collaboration to craft the rule’s framework.
Materion, based in Mayfield Heights, OH, is the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal. The company has partnered with NIOSH for two decades in an effort to learn how workers can be protected from beryllium and provided OSHA with nearly 1,000 pages of studies. The data allowed the agency to meet certain feasibility requirements.
“Having that assistance really does make a difference and speeds up the process” of promulgating the rule, Michaels said.
During the press conference, Materion Chairman and CEO Richard Hipple said that he hopes the proposal will quickly lead to a final rule to better ensure safe handling of beryllium.
USW International President Leo Gerard noted that the current standard has its roots in research from the 1940s, and technical and scientific knowledge has “improved considerably.”
“It’s not everything we want, but it’s certainly a lot better than what the older standard was,” Gerard said of the rule.
Notably, the proposal does not cover workers exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials. This includes employees at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production facilities, as well as workers who perform abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and maritime industries.
Michaels said coal slag workers are exposed to numerous materials that could cause diseases, and they are protected through various respiratory standards. Still, Michaels added that OSHA is interested in finding out more about beryllium-specific exposure among those workers, as the agency currently lacks enough data to promulgate a new beryllium PEL in these fields.
“We need the evidence,” Michaels said, requesting that stakeholders provide the agency with information on workers who may be at risk due to trace exposure, and offer ideas on the best way to protect these workers.
Stakeholders have until Nov. 9 to comment on the proposal.