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A proposal to lower workplace exposure to beryllium-containing materials to reduce the risk of lung disease and cancer has industry and labor support, sources say.
Inhaling beryllium, a widely used metal that's stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, can cause workers to develop chronic beryllium disease, a “debilitating disease of the lungs,” lung cancer and other illnesses, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Most worker exposures occur in foundries and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramic and composite manufacturing, and dental lab work, OSHA said in a statement.
Limiting workplace exposure could prevent about 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses each year, the federal agency said earlier this month in making the proposal.
Industries that use beryllium
Beryllium is favored in various manufacturing processes due to it being stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Industries that use the metal include:
• Aircraft manufacturing, maintenance
• Computer manufacturing
• Dental laboratories
• Foundries, metal reclamation
• Telecommunications manufacturing
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The eight-hour exposure limit for beryllium, established in 1948, is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. OSHA has proposed reducing that limit to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter and requiring additional protections, such as personal protective equipment and medical exams.
David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, said the revision is “long overdue,”
“We've known for decades that the allowable exposure levels for beryllium are inadequate,” Mr. Michaels said during a conference call. “To date, the Department of Labor has paid more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who developed chronic beryllium disease after exposure to beryllium.”
The United Steelworkers has pushed for a lower limit for more than 30 years and was involved in drafting the proposed rule, said Mike Wright, health, safety and environment director for the Pittsburgh-based union.
“At least one or two groups think the (permissible exposure limit) should be lower,” Mr. Wright said. “But there's some risk at every level but zero.”
Mr. Wright said he hasn't heard from any industry groups that oppose lowering the limit. “They realize it's a far better rule than we have now,” he said.
Materion Corp., an Elmhurst, Illinois-based supplier of specialty materials that also helped craft the proposed beryllium rule, said in a statement that it will provide “technical assistance and practical tools to help make compliance with the new beryllium standard simple and straightforward.”
Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, said the group is pleased that OSHA worked with labor and industry to develop its proposal.
“Frankly, this is how rulemaking should be conducted,” Mr. Trauger said.
However, the proposed rule would not cover employees at coal-burning power plans, aluminum production, abrasive blasting jobs using coal slag in the construction and shipyards industries, OSHA said.
“Including those groups would have meant opening “negotiation(s) to lots of other people, which could have made it impossible,” Mr. Wright said. He said he's fairly confident the rule will pass “within a year or so,” despite the fact that OSHA has been working to lower workplace exposure to crystalline silica particles for more than a decade.
OSHA, which began analyzing comments on the proposed silica rule in June, is accepting comments on the proposed beryllium standard through Nov. 5.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is delaying the full enforcement of its confined spaces in construction standard for 60 days.