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OSHA issues new beryllium exposure rule

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a new rule to lower workplace exposure to beryllium.

The rule, a final priority for outgoing Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, will require general industry, construction and shipyard employers to take additional steps to protect an estimated 62,000 workers from serious risks such as lung diseases, the agency said Friday in a statement. 

Beryllium is used in the aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunication, medical and defense industries, but it is highly toxic when beryllium-containing materials are processed in a way that releases airborne beryllium dust, fumes or mist into the workplace air that can be then inhaled by workers, potentially damaging their lungs, according to OSHA. Workers in foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, grinding beryllium metal and alloys, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing and dental lab work represent the majority of at-risk workers. 

“Outdated exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from beryllium exposure,” Mr. Michaels said in the statement. “OSHA’s new standard is based on a strong foundation of science and consensus on the need for action, including peer-reviewed scientific evidence, a model standard developed by industry and labor, current consensus standards and extensive public outreach. The new limits will reduce exposures and protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.”

The final rule will reduce the eight-hour permissible exposure limit from the previous level of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Above that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium. The rule requires additional protections, including personal protective equipment, medical exams and other medical surveillance and training. It also establishes a short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter over a 15-minute sampling period.

OSHA estimates that the rule will annually save the lives of 94 workers from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related diseases per year when fully implemented. Employers have one year after the rule becomes effective to implement most of its provisions, although they have two years to provide required changing rooms and showers and three years to implement engineering controls.