WASHINGTON (PAI) – It’s only taken 12 and a half years, but after Steelworker pressure and after management joined the push, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to cut worker exposure to beryllium by 90 percent. Beryllium is a heavy metal whose inhalation causes a chronic lung disease and may lead to lung cancer.
OSHA’s proposed rule would cut beryllium exposure to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Workers in aerospace, smelters, ceramics, dental labs and more – at least 35,000 workers nationwide – could benefit. Beryllium is also “an essential component of nuclear weapons,” OSHA says, workers in those plants are at risk.
OSHA calculates the new lower limit would save 96 workers’ lives annually, and halt 50 cases of non-fatal illnesses. The Steelworkers and the leading U.S. manufacturer, Materion, came to OSHA in 2002 to urge it to write a new rule. OSHA started considering that in 1975.
“This collaboration of industry and labor presents a historic opportunity to protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers,” said OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist. “We hope other industries where workers are exposed to deadly substances join with unions and other organizations representing those workers to reduce exposures, prevent diseases and save lives.”
That may not occur. When OSHA has tried other exposure rule updates, as in the case of silica dust, industry, congressional Republicans, or both resist.
Besides saving lives, OSHA also says the benefits of the new beryllium rule far outweigh its costs: $255 million-$576 million in yearly benefits to workers, depending on the discount rate, versus $37.6 million-$39.1 million in annual costs. OSHA seeks comments on its plan by Nov. 5. If there’s enough demand for them, the agency will hold public hearings.
The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium is two micrograms per cubic meter of air. That PEL is one of dozens of OSHA rules on worker exposure to toxic substances established in 1971, just after OSHA was founded, based in studies from the 1960s or before. In beryllium’s case, the studies are from the 1940s. The PELs haven’t been updated since.
OSHA wants to cut emissions of beryllium into the air, especially since those emissions adhere to clothes and other materials, thus putting not just the workers at risk, but their families, too. And other workers could be exposed to beryllium as it flies out with other waste materials, such as coal ash, OSHA says. The proposed rule doesn’t cover them, though.
“Current beryllium permissible exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from chronic beryllium disease, beryllium sensitization, and lung cancer,” OSHA explains. The workers now are exposed to beryllium dust, fumes and mist in workplace air, it adds.
OSHA explained the Steelworkers first filed formal papers demanding a cut in beryllium exposure, but that it wasn’t until a series of stakeholder meetings that brought labor and management together that the agency was able to move on a solution.
“Engineering and work practices will be sufficient to reduce and maintain beryllium exposures to the proposed” limit “or below in most operations most of the time in the affected industries,” OSHA says.
“For those few operations within an industry or application group where compliance…
cannot be achieved even when employers implement all feasible engineering and work practice controls, the proposed standard would require employers to supplement controls with respirators,” it says.
“In addition, for each operation where there is airborne beryllium exposure, the employer must ensure one or more of the engineering and work practice controls…are in place, unless all of the listed controls are infeasible, or the employer can demonstrate that exposures are below the action level based on two samples taken seven days apart,” OSHA said.
It also lists several “regulatory alternatives” that firms could use to achieve the beryllium new exposure limits. And OSHA would set up schedules for “medical surveillance” of workers exposed to beryllium, as well as ordering employers to enact restricted access areas to warn workers of the danger.
Photo: Smelter at aluminum processing plant. | WKYUFM.org