Unionized steelworkers are pushing the federal government to adopt stricter safety standards governing beryllium exposure, arguing that the even a drastic exposure reduction proposed by regulators last year is inadequate in protecting many workers from the highly toxic element.
According to the Newport News Daily Press, union officials from the largest Newport News shipyard say even the drastic reduction in exposure limits proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) won’t protect thousands of workers, and advocate for even lower limits and different, safer blasting agents.
OSHA has published a notice of proposed rulemaking, calling for public comments on a rule that would lower the exposure limit 90 percent from 2 micrograms over eight hours to 0.2 micrograms. But that rule would still exclude workers in the maritime and construction industries.
The shipbuilding industry currently uses coal slag, which contains trace amounts of beryllium, in its blasting operations. The maritime and construction industries would be exempt from OSHA’s proposed rule, but the agency said it is open to including those industries as well.
A United Steelworkers safety official said that a blasting agent made from recycled glass is nearing a trial run.
“The joint health and safety committee is currently looking at a substitute material that will significantly reduce worker exposure,” the union official said in comments submitted to OSHA on the proposed rule. “If we cannot do something now that we know how hazardous this dust is, how can we say that we are doing our job when so many workers go unprotected?”
Some unions are calling on OSHA for a steeper exposure reduction to 0.1 percent from 2 percent – a standard that was set in 1971 but based on beryllium research conducted in the 1940s.
Workers in industries where beryllium is used may be exposed by inhaling airborne beryllium or contacting it on surfaces. Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that results in an individual becoming sensitized to the element, which in turn can develop into a debilitating lung disease called chronic beryllium disease.
Workers who inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized may also develop other adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease and lung cancer.
According to the Daily Press, a United Steelworkers official in Pittsburgh urged OSHA to set the standard to 0.1 because a 0.2 limit can still “lead to significant overexposures.”
Not moving to a 0.1 standard would “leave thousands of workers unprotected — not just the blasters and their helpers, but anyone else in the area, and not just in shipbuilding and construction, but in abrasive blasting operations in general industry as well,” the Union official said.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) said that “workers still face a significant risk of death from beryllium exposure” with a 0.2 limit, and supports including maritime and construction workers in the rule, in addition to anyone else working with materials with less than 0.1 beryllium by weight.
“This inclusion would protect 40,000 additional workers from beryllium exposure,” the AFL–CIO said.