Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels yesterday announced a proposed new standard that would dramatically lower workplace exposure to beryllium, a widely used material that can cause devastating lung diseases.

The proposal would apply to an estimated 35,000 workers covered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Changing the 1948 limit

The agency’s current standard – which was established in 1948 by the Atomic Energy Commission and adopted by OSHA in 1971 – has an 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.

OSHA’s proposed standard would reduce the eight-hour permissible exposure limit to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. The proposed rule would also require additional protections, including personal protective equipment, medical exams, other medical surveillance and training.

The 1971 limit significantly reduced fatalities due to acute beryllium disease but, over time, it became clear that exposure below that limit also had damaging long-term health effects. OSHA initially proposed to lower the permissible exposure limit for beryllium in 1975.

Industry + labor joined forces

The need for a new standard was recognized by the nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers, the union representing many of those who work with beryllium. Together, they approached OSHA in 2012 to suggest a stronger standard.

Michaels called the collaboration of industry and labor to protect workers was “historic,” and said the rule could prevent almost 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses each year.

“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.”

The dangers of beryllium

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.

Beryllium is an essential component of nuclear weapons. To date, the department has paid more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who developed chronic beryllium disease after being exposed to beryllium.

The majority of current worker exposures to beryllium occur in operations such as foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing and dental lab work. The proposed rule would not cover some workers exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials, including those employed at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production facilities, and those performing abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyards industries. OSHA seeks comment during the rulemaking on whether these workers should also be covered by the final rule.

The proposed rule will be published in the Aug. 7, 2015 issue of the Federal Register. Members of the public may read the proposal and submit written comments here. Comments must be submitted by Nov. 9, 2015. Additional information on the proposed rule can be found here.