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OSHA sets lower beryllium exposure limit

Agency estimates that rule will save the lives of 94 workers annually

by Jyllian Kemsley
January 13, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 3

Allowable worker exposure to beryllium will be reduced to one-tenth of the current level, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) announced earlier this month.

Beryllium is used in multiple applications in areas such as aerospace, electronics, energy, and medicine. Industrial workers who inhale beryllium-containing dust or mist while mining or processing the metal can develop lung disease.

The current permissible exposure limit for airborne beryllium dates to the 1940s, when the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission set the limit at 2.0 µg/m3, as averaged over an eight-hour period. OSHA first proposed lowering it in 1975. The Department of Energy lowered its exposure limit for nuclear weapons workers to 0.2 µg/m3 in 1999.

In 2012, the United Steelworkers union and Materion, the only U.S. beryllium materials maker, together proposed to OSHA that the agency also lower its limit to 0.2 µg/m3.

Employers have one year to implement most of the new standard’s provisions. Once the standard is fully implemented, OSHA estimates that it will prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease and save the lives of 94 workers annually.

The effort to lower the exposure limit demonstrates that “industry and labor can collaborate to protect workers and protect jobs at the same time,” Materion chairman Richard J. Hipple has said in the past.

“This rule will protect workers who are exposed to beryllium in general industry, construction, and shipyards and ensure that controls are put in place to prevent future occupational illness from developing,” says United Steelworkers president Leo W. Gerard.


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