The allowable beryllium exposure limit for industrial workers would be slashed to a tenth of current levels under a recent proposal by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
A historic agreement between United Steelworkers and Materion , the sole U.S. manufacturer of beryllium products, led to the more protective proposal, which the organizations offered to OSHA in 2012. This shows that “industry and labor can collaborate to protect workers and protect jobs at the same time,” says Materion chair Richard J. Hipple.
Beryllium dust is best known for causing devastating lung disease in nuclear weapons workers. But industrial exposure to this alkaline earth metal now occurs most often in manufacturing for uses as diverse as space telescopes or dental implants.
OSHA proposed tightening the eight-hour beryllium exposure limit from 2.0 µg/m3 of air to 0.2 µg/m3. The agency estimates that the standard will cover about 35,000 workers nationwide and prevent 100 deaths and 50 illnesses each year. “This rule will save lives and reduce suffering,” says OSHA chief David Michaels.
OSHA first suggested lowering its exposure limit in the 1970s, but the change was never adopted. The Department of Energy set its standard for nuclear weapons workers at 0.2 µg/m3 in 1999, when Michaels was assistant energy secretary for environment, safety, and health.
Michaels hopes that union-industry cooperation will be a model that can speed future regulations that protect chemical workers. “If we continue to go chemical by chemical, we will get some standards out,” he says. “But there are so many chemicals we haven’t gotten to.”
Leo W. Gerard, international president of United Steelworkers, says this worker-industry cooperation makes a significant statement to other sectors considering worker protection standards. “We think this is a very important step,” he says.