A new standard to significantly reduce American workers’ exposure to the lung disease-causing metal beryllium has been proposed by the federal government.
The new rule would affect about 35,000 workers covered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and could prevent nearly 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses a year.
People who inhale beryllium particles can develop an incurable condition called chronic beryllium disease. They’re also at increased risk of lung cancer, OSHA said.
Most workers exposed to beryllium are in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composite manufacturing, and dental lab work. Beryllium is also an essential component of nuclear weapons.
Currently, the eight-hour exposure limit for beryllium is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The new standard would reduce that to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, OSHA said. The new regulations would also require more worker protections, including protective equipment, medical exams and other medical monitoring, and training.
The need for a new standard was suggested to OSHA in 2012. The request was made jointly by Materion, the nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, and United Steelworkers, the union representing many Americans who work with beryllium.
“This proposal will save lives and help thousands of workers stay healthy and be more productive on the job,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said in a government news release.
David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said in the news release, “This collaboration of industry and labor presents a historic opportunity to protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.”
Michaels added that the government hopes to see more collaboration between other industries and organizations representing workers to reduce exposure to harmful substances.
The new standards don’t include some workers who are exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials. This includes people employed at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production manufacturers. The new rule also wouldn’t cover those who do abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyard industries, OSHA said.
The proposed rule will be published in the Aug. 7, 2015 issue of the Federal Register and public comments on the proposal will be accepted until Nov. 9, 2015.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about beryllium.