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Beryllium Exposure Could be Cut by 90 Percent if Proposed OSHA Rule Change Takes Effect


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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a proposed rule change which would cut worker exposure to the metal Beryllium by 90 percent.  The proposal was entered into the federal register on August 7th and comments can be submitted until November 5th.  If there is enough reaction to the rule, public hearings will be held.   

The long-awaited proposal gained momentum in 2012 when the United Steelworkers and the country’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, approached OSHA suggesting a new standard.  In a statement, OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels praised the partnership that helped push the new regulation:

“This collaboration of industry and labor presents a historic opportunity to protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.  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.”

A timeline of the OSHA proposal comes from The Pump Handle, a public health blog written by Dr. Celeste Monforton:

This OSHA proposal is a long time in the making:

• OSHA initially proposed a beryllium standard in 1975, but the rulemaking was squelched by the Department of Defense and fierce lobbying by Brush Wellman (Materion’s predecessor.)
• In 1999, the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) (now part of the USW) petitioned OSHA for a standard. In 2001, Public Citizen and PACE sent another rulemaking petition to OSHA.
• In 2002, OSHA published a “Request for Information” to solicit data, input, and ideas to help OSHA develop a beryllium standard.
• In 2007, OSHA convened a group of small business representatives to provide feedback on a draft proposed rule.
• In 2010, OSHA’s risk assessment on occupational exposure to beryllium was subject to external peer review.
• In February 2012, OSHA received from USW and Materion their negotiated proposal.
• In September 2014, OSHA submitted its draft proposed rule to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. That office took 10 months to review it.

Beryllium is a lightweight but super strong metal, the exposure to which can lead to lung cancer and the respiratory disorder Chronic Beryllium Disease.  OSHA estimates that every year 35,000 workers are exposed to Beryllium in occupations such as foundry and smelting operations, machining, and dental lab work.  The proposed rule would cut beryllium exposure to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.  OSHA believes the regulation would save 96 workers’ lives annually, and halt another 50 cases of non-fatal illnesses.

According to OSHA’s research, the benefits of a new Beryllium regulation far outweigh the costs.  The agency has placed the ratio at between $255 million-$576 million in yearly benefits to workers, depending on the discount rate, versus $37.6 million-$39.1 million in annual costs.  Despite the obvious benefits of the new regulation there will likely be resistance from business groups, not unlike the pushback against silica dust regulations. Industry players and Congressional Republicans wrecklessly opposed those measures. 

There is also resistance from health experts who think the regulation should go further:

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.

For Dr. Michaels, the proposed regulation marks the end of a long battle against Beryllium exposure:

For Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, the development had special significance: In 1999, as assistant secretary of energy for environmental safety and health, he issued the final regulation lowering allowable worker exposure to beryllium in nuclear weapons facilities.

“OSHA’s new proposed rule is the beginning of the final chapter of our making peace with the past.  Once we finish, workers exposed to beryllium will be protected and we will save the lives and lungs of hundreds.”


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