Worker exposure to the toxic metal beryllium is drawing new attention, as federal authorities probe labeling compliance by some abrasives manufacturers and the beryllium industry itself proposes new exposure limits.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating whether suppliers of coal and copper slag abrasives have made the required safety disclosures regarding beryllium and other metals in their products.
“OSHA is aware of potential violations involving several manufacturers or upstream suppliers of coal and copper slag abrasives used in blasting operations and their failure to provide the required hazard information on their material safety data sheets (MSDS),” an OSHA spokesman said in a prepared statement.
|A new model standard proposed by the beryllium industry could affect abrasive blasting exposures.|
Noting that such abrasives “typically contain trace amounts” of beryllium, arsenic and other metals, the statement adds, “When these abrasives are used in blasting, measured exposure levels to workers could exceed OSHA permissible exposure limits. Some manufacturers have not included these metals as ingredients on their MSDS.”
OSHA’s action followed a complaint about beryllium labeling filed in January by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
OSHA said it would refer the matter to the Area Office where the relevant manufacturers and suppliers are located. The agency declined to identify manufacturers that may be targeted or to provide any additional details.
The investigation procedures are spelled out in a compliance directive for OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard.
Industry Proposes Standard
Meanwhile, in what it calls an “unprecedented” move, the leading U.S. supplier of beryllium has teamed up with several labor unions to propose a standard that would sharply limit airborne beryllium exposure in the workplace.
The standard, submitted to OSHA on Feb. 8, was developed over two years by Ohio-based beryllium maker Materion Brush Inc., the United Steelworkers and two other unions that represent beryllium workers.
The measure would slash the occupational exposure limit for beryllium by 90 percent and would require “feasible engineering controls in any operation which generates any beryllium dust or fume, even those which meet the exposure limit.”
The proposal details new Permissible Exposure Limits, engineering controls, personal protective equipment, monitoring and assessment, hygiene, housekeeping and medical surveillance and training requirements.
PEL Called ‘Too High’
“We believe the current OSHA permissible exposure limit for beryllium of 2 µg/m³ is too high,” Materion and the Steelworkers wrote OSHA Administrator David Michaels in a cover letter with the proposal.
“The current standard also lacks provisions for exposure monitoring, medical surveillance, information and training, all of which are critical to protecting exposed workers.”
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 Steelworkers have been pushing OSHA for a beryllium standard since 1999. The union represents workers who manufacture beryllium alloys and beryllium-containing products in a number of industries.
Impact on Abrasives
Although driven by the beryllium manufacturing industry, the model standard would also apply to airborne exposures in general industry, including abrasive blasting, Materion officials said
Indeed, the coal-slag abrasive blasting industry would be “one of the most impacted groups” under the standard, a Materion spokeswoman said.
Beryllium is a component of coal; breathing air containing beryllium can deposit beryllium particles in the lungs, presenting immune-system and respiratory risks. Some studies have also linked beryllium to cancer.
Jumpstarting the Process
OSHA began a rulemaking process for beryllium in 2002 with a Request for Information. After several small business and scientific peer reviews over several years, the process stalled in 2010. Recently, OSHA classified a beryllium standard as a “long-term action” unlikely to be addressed soon.
Now, however, by serving up ready-made language that carries the approval of both manufacturer and labor, Materion hopes its proposal will “expedite the agency’s beryllium rulemaking process.”
Materion Brush says it has “invested substantially” in research to protect workers and customers from the potential health effects of beryllium and has “built a highly effective beryllium health and safety program.”
OSHA has not responded to the proposal. Neither has most of the abrasive blasting industry.
However, Harsco Minerals, of Mechanicsburg, PA, maker of Black Beauty abrasives, issued this statement:
“We question the relevancy of the draft occupational health standard to the abrasive blasting/surface preparation industry and find it to be misleading that a correlation between beryllium alloy manufacturers and abrasive manufacturers has been implied without all of the facts and further clarification from OSHA,” said the statement by Domenic DeAngelo, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Abrasives and Roofing.
“The fact is that all abrasives produced from natural sources such as nickel slag, garnet, crushed glass and others are likely to contain trace amounts of metals and other elements. In the case of coal slag and copper slag abrasives, the levels of beryllium are about the same as those found in everyday soil, and fall below the laboratory detection limits of the 0.1% OSHA listing requirement for these elements.
“Moreover, because coal slag and copper slag abrasives are produced as a vitrified (heat-hardened) solid granule, the interior elements are encapsulated; a large granule has the same chemical composition of a small granule. Many other abrasives are also formed through the process of vitrification.
“As always, and as is typical throughout the abrasive blasting industry, normal PPE (personal protective equipment) practices are always recommended to further reduce any personal risk. We are working closely with OSHA to further protect worker safety by proposing an industry standard for all abrasive manufacturers, should new regulations be determined.”