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Unions, industry at odds over beryllium rule revisions

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Union officials and worker rights groups are pushing back against the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s attempt to revoke certain compliance requirements under its beryllium regulation for the construction and shipyard sectors, but industry stakeholders are urging the agency to move forward with the revisions. 

OSHA released a proposed beryllium rule in June to modify standards for the construction and shipyard sectors and announced it will not enforce the current standards on these industries without further notice, much to the chagrin of supporters of the rule. The proposed rule would maintain the permissible exposure limit at 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter and the short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter over a 15-minute sampling period for the construction and shipyard industries. However, it will revise the application of ancillary provisions such as housekeeping and personal protective equipment included in the January rule for these industries.

Comments on the proposal were due this week and fell along predictable lines, with union officials and worker rights groups objecting to the proposed changes and industry stakeholders supporting them. 

“We strongly oppose every provision of OSHA's new proposal that revokes the ancillary provisions for the construction and ship yard sectors that OSHA had already adopted on Jan. 9, 2017,” Jessica Martinez, deputy director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in comments published on Aug. 25 and echoed by other organizations. “The agency must not revoke any of the provisions promulgated in the final rules on Jan. 9, and they must assure that the full standards are implemented as published. Adopting any of the provisions in this new proposal would lead to more death and disease among exposed shipyard and construction workers. We strongly oppose this proposal and its mission to create a two-tiered system of protection for workers exposed to beryllium. OSHA must move forward and implement the rules as promulgated.”

The United Steelworkers requested an informal public hearing on OSHA’s proposed rule revision in comments submitted on Aug. 9. 

“The attempt to revoke protections for the construction and maritime industry is unprecedented and appears to be an unnecessary attempt of the agency to appease particular industry stakeholders affected by the final rule,” said Ashlee Fitch, a technician in USW’s health, safety and environment department in Pittsburgh. “The USW strongly opposes OSHA’s proposal to revoke the ancillary provisions in the maritime and construction standards. The agency’s decision to reconsider these protections is an unnecessary delay in protecting workers that are significantly impacted by requirements of the final rule regulating exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds in all industries.”

But Dru Branche, director, environmental, health and safety for Newport News, Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding, expressed support for revoking the ancillary requirements while maintaining the permissible exposure limits for beryllium in her Aug. 25 comments. 

“Whether or not OSHA promulgates the June proposal to revoke ancillary requirements, Newport News Shipbuilding supports a delay of one year in the implementation date from the original January proposal to allow shipyards to more adequately assess the potential for beryllium exposure to various blasting grits,” she said.