The federal government is proposing a new standard that would dramatically lower workplace exposure to beryllium, a widely used material that can cause devastating lung diseases. The proposal would apply to an estimated 35,000 workers covered by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“This proposal will save lives and help thousands of workers stay healthy and be more productive on the job,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “We’re pleased that industry has been such a strong voice in advocating for a more rigorous standard. The proposal is strong because of unprecedented partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers.”
Currently, OSHA’s eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Above that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium. That standard was originally established in 1948 by the Atomic Energy Commission and adopted by OSHA in 1971. OSHA’s proposed standard would reduce the eight-hour permissible exposure limit to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. The proposed rule would also require additional protections, including personal protective equipment, medical exams, other medical surveillance and training.
The 1971 limit significantly reduced fatalities due to acute beryllium disease but, over time, it became clear that exposure below that limit also had damaging long-term health effects. OSHA initially proposed to lower the permissible exposure limit for beryllium in 1975.
The need for a new standard was recognized by the nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers, the union representing many of those who work with beryllium. Together, they approached OSHA in 2012 to suggest a stronger standard.
“This collaboration of industry and labor presents a historic opportunity to protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “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.”
OSHA estimates that the rule could prevent almost 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses each year. Workers who inhale beryllium particles can develop a debilitating, incurable illness known as chronic beryllium disease, and are also at increased risk of lung cancer. Dangers arise when beryllium-containing materials are processed in a way that releases airborne beryllium dust, fume, mist or other forms.