lungsThe United Steelworkers (USW) and Materion Brush have reached agreement on a model Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) beryllium standard and have sent it to the agency as a joint recommendation.

Materion Brush, the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal, accounts for more than half of the beryllium alloys and compounds produced in the United States. The USW represents workers who manufacture beryllium alloys and beryllium-containing products in a number of industries.

Beryllium, a valuable metal, is critical in many applications, including national defense. However, beryllium can cause a chronic and sometimes fatal disease of the lungs. Studies have also shown beryllium to cause cancer. The current permissible exposure limit is the lowest for any common metal, but it is widely acknowledged to be too high.

The recommended standard would lower the exposure limit by 90 percent. In addition, the standard would require feasible engineering controls in any operation which generates any beryllium dust or fume, even those which meet the exposure limit.

The recommended standard also contains provisions for medical surveillance, including a new technique for the early detection of lung cancer; earnings protection for workers removed from exposure; information and training, and exposure monitoring.

“This was a two-year negotiation, but it wasn’t some sort of give and take,” said Michael Wright, USW Health, Safety and Environment Department director. “Rather, it was a mutual search for feasible measures that would best protect workers. We worked through many disagreements, but worker health was always the goal for both parties.”

The draft standard is only a recommendation. OSHA cannot defer its rulemaking authority to any outside party. “Nevertheless, given that the recommendation comes from the largest beryllium producer and the union with a large number of exposed members, we hope it can greatly reduce the time necessary to get a new regulation in place,” said Wright. “Beryllium workers deserve all the protections of a strong, enforceable standard.”

The USW represents 850,000 workers in North America employed in many industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining and the service and public sectors.