OSHA has delayed the effective date of its rule to lower beryllium exposure limits for a second time, to May 20, 2017. The agency said in a statement that the change will allow for “additional review into questions of law and policy.”

The new standard limits exposure to 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period and 2.0 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute period. 

Beryllium is a lightweight but extremely strong metal used in the aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunications, medical, and defense industries. According to OSHA, inhaling airborne beryllium can cause a lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and has also been linked to lung cancer.

Who is exposed?

The agency estimates that about 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium in their workplaces, including approximately 11,500 construction and shipyard workers who may conduct abrasive blasting operations using slags that contain trace amounts of beryllium. The majority of workers affected by the rule are exposed in general industry operations such as beryllium metal and ceramic production, non-ferrous foundries, and fabrication of beryllium alloy products. 

Compliance dates

While all three standards contained in the final rule take effect on May 20 and employers must comply with most elements of the rule starting March 12, 2018 - one year from the original effective date – they have an additional year - until March 11, 2019 - to provide required change rooms and showers, and an additional two years - until March 10, 2020 - to implement engineering controls.

While the delay gives Congress additional time to repeal the rule under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), industry groups – particularly companies that manufacture blasting materials -- are challenging it in court. They point to a 2007 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on occupational exposure to beryllium in abrasive blasting with coal-slag that concludes; “The respiratory protection worn by the blaster appeared to provide adequate protection from this potential exposure, based upon the assigned protection factor for that type of respirator.”

Additionally, abrasive blasting manufacturing companies say their industry did not have sufficient opportunity to comment on it during the rulemaking process as required under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The industry also argues that it will have to conduct costly blast testing to determine if materials meet the thresholds specified in the rule.

United Steelworkers (USW), which had advocated for the rule since the early 1970s, said alternative materials could be used in abrasive blasting to eliminate the risk of beryllium exposure.

According to news sources, Michael Wright, USW’s director of health safety and environment, said Newport News Shipbuilding — the largest shipbuilder in the U.S. — told the union it could comply with the rule by replacing the blasting agents contaminated with beryllium with other materials.