An estimated 62,000 American workers could be protected from risks linked to workplace exposure to beryllium, a material that can cause lung diseases, under a new rule issued on Jan. 6 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency announced by press release.
A lightweight material known for its strength, beryllium is used in electronics, energy, aerospace, defense, and medical applications. During processing of materials that contain beryllium, harmful dust, fumes, or mist can become airborne and inhaled by workers. The substance has been found in recent studies to cause lung disease, according to the agency.
Taking new research into account, the new OSHA rule lowers permissible exposure limits to beryllium, which were based on “decades-old studies,” OSHA said.
“Outdated exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from beryllium exposure,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels said in a statement. “OSHA’s new standard is based on a strong foundation of science and consensus on the need for action, including peer-reviewed scientific evidence, a model standard developed by industry and labor, current consensus standards, and extensive public outreach. The new limits will reduce exposures and protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.”
Under the rule, the permissible exposure limit to the substance over 8 work hours is reduced to 0.2 mg/cu m from the previous limit of 2.0 mg/cu m. If the amount of beryllium goes above the new level, employers are required to make efforts to reduce airborne concentrations of the substance. The rule also creates additional protections for workers through personal protective equipment requirements, medical exams, and other medical surveillance and training.
OSHA estimates that the new standard will save 94 workers’ lives per year from beryllium-related diseases, and prevent 46 new cases of diseases related to the substance annually. Employees involved with foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, grinding beryllium metal and allows, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing and dental lab work are at the highest risk, according to the agency.
Other industries impacted by the new rule include coal energy, where employees that handle fly ash residue from coal burning face increase risks. Workers in construction and shipyards face beryllium exposure from the operation of slag blasting abrasives, which can cause elevated beryllium dust levels and “significant” exposures, the agency said, despite the small amount of the material used.
The dates when the new rule come into effect are staggered to allow businesses to prepare to for compliance. Employers must provide workers with required change rooms and showers beginning two years after the rule’s effective date. Engineering controls are required three years after the effective date.
To see the full text of the new rule in the Federal Register, click here.