Web Date: August 7, 2015
More Protective Worker Exposure Limit For Beryllium Proposed
The beryllium exposure limit for industrial workers would be slashed to a tenth of what it is now under an Aug. 6 proposal by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
OSHA proposed tightening the 8-hour exposure limit from 2.0 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air to 0.2 µg/m3. This more protective safety standard is backed by organized labor and the sole U.S. manufacturer of beryllium parts, which are used in applications that include particle accelerators.
“This rule will save lives and reduce suffering,” says OSHA chief David Michaels. OSHA estimates that the new standard will cover about 35,000 workers nationwide and prevent 100 deaths and 50 illnesses each year.
Beryllium dust causes devastating lung disease in up to 15% of those who are exposed. It is best known for causing illness in nuclear weapons workers. But most worker exposure to this alkaline earth metal now occurs in operations such as machining, production of specialty ceramics and dental implants, and aircraft manufacturing.
The 2-µg/m3 standard was set by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and adopted by OSHA in 1971. But it soon became clear to the worker safety agency that the standard was not strict enough to protect workers from the risks of long-term beryllium exposure. OSHA proposed a change in 1975, but it never took effect because of opposition. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, ratcheted down its exposure limit for nuclear weapons workers to 0.2 µg/m3 in 1999, when current OSHA head Michaels was assistant energy secretary for environment, safety, and health
After working for more than 40 years to update the beryllium safety standard, OSHA was pushed to action by an unusual industry-union collaboration.
In 2012, the United Steelworkers union, which represents many people who work with beryllium, and the only U.S. beryllium materials maker, Materion, came to an agreement on a new safety standard and offered it to OSHA.
The proposal shows that “industry and labor can collaborate to protect workers and protect jobs at the same time,” says Richard J. Hipple, chairman of Materion.
The industry-labor cooperation that brought about the standard makes an important statement to other sectors where new or updated worker protection standards are under consideration, says Leo W. Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers.
Michaels says he hopes that example set by the union and Materion can help OSHA speed development of future regulations to protect chemical workers, many of whom are United Steelworkers members.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society