OSHA Proposes Lowering Workplace Beryllium Levels

OSHA is proposing new standards on exposure to beryllium, an acknowledgement that many of its standards don’t adequately cover all workplace hazards. Beryllium is a metal widely used in the aircraft and aerospace industries because of its conductive and thermal properties when alloyed with other metals. Beryllium and its compounds are carcinogenic and toxic and when dust or fumes are inhaled can cause an incurable illness known as chronic beryllium disease or berylliosis. The Air Filtration and Indoor Air Quality experts at GulfTech Enterprises have significant experience in providing customer solutions to beryllium exposure. [1] They have installed air filtration systems to safely capture and contain the hazardous beryllium dust to OSHA standards.

OHSA’s proposal is historically significant because it represents a collaborative effort between industry and labor unions. The nation’s main manufacturer of beryllium products, Materion, and the United Steelworkers labor union, representing many of those who work with beryllium, recognized the need for a new standard. 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.”[2]

There are an estimated 35,000 workers in the metalworking industry with potential exposure to beryllium that would be covered by OSHA’s rulemaking. Currently, OSHA’s eight-hour permissible exposure limit or PEL for beryllium is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. [3] That standard was adopted by OSHA in 1971 and has not changed since. OSHA’s proposed standard would reduce the eight-hour permissible exposure limit to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Above that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium. Air Filtration and dust collection systems designed by experienced companies such as GulfTech, Inc.[4] can help employers meet that standard. The proposed rule would also require additional protections, including personal protective equipment, medical exams, other medical surveillance and training.

“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.”[5]

While the exposure limits set back in 1971 had a significant effect in reducing fatalities due to acute beryllium disease, it has become clear in the 45 years since that exposure below 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air also had damaging long-term health effects. Although OSHA initially proposed to lower the permissible exposure limit for beryllium in 1975 it was not until industry and labor banded together that gave impetus to finally affect change.

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.

The majority of current worker exposures to beryllium occur in operations such as foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing and dental lab work.

The proposed rule was published in the Aug. 7, 2015 issue of the Federal Register. [1]

[1] OSHA proposal would lower beryllium levels, increase workplace protections, https://www.osha.gov/newsrelease/nat-20150806.html

[1] Installing Dust Collection System Helps Aerospace Company Safely Capture Hazardous Dust, https://www.gulftech.us/dust-collection-system-helps-aerospace-company-safely-capture-hazardous-dust/

[2] OSHA proposal would lower beryllium levels, increase workplace protections, https://www.osha.gov/newsrelease/nat-20150806.html

[3] OSHA Proposal (Same as Footnote 2)

[4] https://www.gulftech.us/

[5] OSHA proposal (See Footnote 2)

[1] OSHA proposal would lower beryllium levels, increase workplace protections, https://www.osha.gov/newsrelease/nat-20150806.html

Ron Beadenkopf is the Business Development Director and Technical Sales Manager at GulfTech Enterprises, Inc. located in Clearwater, FL