The U.S. government is seeking to boost standards that would dramatically reduce thousands of U.S. workers’ exposure to beryllium, a rare earth element that can cause devastating lung diseases.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says the current rules governing exposure to beryllium were established in 1948 and haven’t changed since, even though our understanding of the risks posed by exposure to the element has evolved significantly.
Under the current standard, OSHA’s eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Above that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium.
The proposed standard would reduce the eight-hour permissible exposure limit to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter and mandate additional protections, including personal protective equipment, routine medical exams and monitoring of worker health, and better training.
OSHA adopted the 1948 beryllium-exposure standards in 1971, shortly after Congress established the agency. The agency’s implementation and enforcement of the rule greatly reduces worker fatalities. Over time, however, it became clear that exposure even below that limit had damaging health effects on workers over the long term.
OSHA first called for better exposure limits in 1975, but no formal actions were taken.
A company called Materion, the top beryllium product manufacturer in the U.S., recognized the need for a new safety standard. United Steelworkers, a union representing many of those who work with beryllium, also pushed for better regulations. Materion and United Steelworkers 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 Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “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.”
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.
OSHA estimates that the rule could prevent about 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses annually.