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OSHA Proposal Aims to Lower Beryllium Levels and Increase Workplace Protections

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September/October 2015

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed a new standard to lower workplace exposure to beryllium. The material, which is widely utilized in many industries, can contribute to serious lung conditions. The proposal, if accepted, would apply to roughly 35,000 workers covered by OSHA across the nation. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. David Michaels, held a media teleconference discussing the standard on August 6, 2015.

In its present form, OSHA beryllium standard has an eight-hour exposure limit allowing 2.0 micrograms of the chemical per cubic meter of air. Beyond that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium. This standard, originally established in 1948 by the Atomic Energy Commission, was adopted by OSHA in 1971. Under the proposed standard update, the eight-hour permissible exposure limit would be reduced to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Additionally, the rule would also require increased protection measures, including personal protective equipment, medical exams and other medical surveillance, and training. Since the establishment of the 1971 standard, it has become evident that exposure below that limit also causes damaging, long-term health effects. Although this original limit significantly reduced fatalities attributed to acute beryllium disease, OSHA initially proposed lowering the exposure limit 40 years ago, in 1975. But the need was not addressed again until recently, when the necessity of a new standard was recognized by the country’s primary beryllium manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers Union, which represents many of those who work with beryllium. In 2012, the two approached OSHA together to suggest a stronger standard.

OSHA estimates that the rule could prevent almost 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses annually. Workers who inhale beryllium particles are at risk for developing a debilitating and incurable illness known as chronic beryllium disease, as well as facing an increased risk of lung cancer. These conditions can form when materials containing beryllium are processed in manners that release airborne beryllium dust, fumes, or mist, among other forms.

The majority of current worker exposures to the material occur in operations such as foundries and smelting, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing, and dental lab work. OSHA’s proposed new rule does not cover some workers who are exposed to traces of beryllium in raw materials, including those employed at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production facilities, nor those performing abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyard industries. The agency seeks comment during the rulemaking on whether these workers should also be covered by the final rule.

To view the proposed rule and submit a formal comment, The comment period ends November 9, 2015.


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