OSHA’s announcement last week of a proposal to modify the agency's recent beryllium standards for the construction and shipyard sectors is being sharply criticized by safety advocates, who are calling it “a step backwards.”

Beryllium exposure causes a debilitating lung ailment called chronic beryllium disease, which is responsible for approximately 100 deaths and thousands of disabilities each year.

What would change

The changes would apply only to the shipyard and construction sectors. The general industry standard is unaffected by the proposal. The proposal would maintain the requirements for exposure limits (permissible exposure limit of 0.2 μg/m3 and short-term exposure limit of 2.0 μg/m3), but would revise the application of ancillary provisions such as housekeeping and personal protective equipment (PPE).

OSHA said the change was due to concerns raised by representatives of the shipyards and construction industries, as well as members of Congress that they had not had “a meaningful opportunity” to comment on the application of the rule to their industries when the rule was developed in 2015-16.

A decade in the making

Jessica Martinez, co-executive director, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), said OSHA spent more than a decade on the rule making process for the standard, and that it would be “severely weakened” by the proposed changes.

“It is well documented that shipyard and construction workers can be exposed to beryllium,” said Martinez. “They need the same protections as other workers – including monitoring and assessing exposure to potential harm and taking steps to eliminate hazards which can lead to life-threatening diseases.”

Exposure limited?

OSHA says it has evidence that exposure in the two industries is limited to a few operations and has information suggesting that requiring the ancillary provisions broadly may not improve worker protection and be redundant with overlapping protections in other standards. The agency is seeking comment on, among other things, whether existing standards covering abrasive blasting in construction, abrasive blasting in shipyards, and welding in shipyards provide adequate protection for workers engaged in these operations.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Occupational Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds in Construction and Shipyard Sectors will be published in the Federal Register on June 27, 2017. OSHA encourages the public to participate in this rulemaking by submitting comments during the 60-day comment period. Click here for information on submitting comments on the proposed rule and requesting public hearings.

On Jan. 9, 2017, OSHA issued a final rule that established new protections for workers who are exposed to beryllium in general industry, construction, and shipyards. Beryllium is a lightweight metal used primarily in specialty alloys and beryllium oxide ceramics. It is also present as a trace material in metal slags.

OSHA also announced it will not enforce the Jan. 9, 2017, construction and shipyard standards without further notice while determining whether to amend the Jan. 9, 2017, rule.