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After 40 Years, OSHA Tackles Beryllium

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

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A new federal proposal to reduce worker exposure to beryllium will not cover those who perform abrasive blasting, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The model, which OSHA published Aug. 7 in the Federal Register, is unlike the one it has been considering for years.

Occupational Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds,” which has been long awaited, will not cover the construction or maritime industries. Instead, OSHA said an Aug. 6 statement and in its proposed rulemaking document that construction workers who use coal-slag, copper-slag or crushed glass abrasive blasting methods already are covered by other regulations that would protect them from beryllium exposure.

For example, abrasive blasters in the construction industry fall under the protection of the Ventilation standard (29 CFR 1926.57).

©iStock.com / shime02

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has published a new rulemaking proposal on beryllium, which would decrease the amount of the element to which some workers could be exposed.

The proposed rule also rejects, in part, a 2014 recommendation from OSHA’s own Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH), which stated that the construction industry should be included in the scope of the proposed rule reducing beryllium limits.

Seeking Comments

However, the agency has said it still is willing to hear what others have to say.

In its statement, OSHA officials said they would seek comments to determine whether workers who perform abrasive-blasting work—such as highway construction workers renovating bridges or shipyard employees clearing paint off a ship’s hull—should be covered by the final rule.

The public can make comments until Nov. 5 through Regulations.gov. Other methods, including via facsimile and by regular mail, are included within the publication and on OSHA’s Beryllium Rulemaking website.

The site also includes several OSHA-generated fact sheets and information sheets on beryllium health risks, on how to use the metal safely and on the changes outlined in the proposed rule.

More than 40 Years

The new rule has taken a long time to work out. OSHA initially tried to lower its current 8-hour Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) on beryllium, which is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, in 1975.

But opposition—including from the U.S. secretaries of Energy and Defense—led to shelving those plans for several decades.

Instead, the agency has been enforcing its 1971 policies on beryllium as other federal agencies reduced their own limits. OSHA began the most recent rulemaking proposal in 2002 with a Request for Information.

The new proposed policy would set the PEL at 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for long-term exposure and lower its ceiling on short-term PEL (15 or fewer minutes) from 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air to the current 8-hour PEL of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

It also adds other protections for workers exposed to beryllium. Those include additional personal protective equipment, medical exams, medical surveillance and worker training.

“This proposal will save lives and help thousands of workers stay healthy and be more productive on the job,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez in the agency’s statement. “We’re pleased that industry has been such a strong voice in advocating for a more rigorous standard.

“The proposal is strong because of unprecedented partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers,” he said.

Still, the agency has said it is willing to consider other options.

Current Rule Alternatives

In its proposed rule, OSHA has said it wishes to enforce the first two of four alternatives its committee considered when discussing what to change in the current rule. The other two options—which would include the construction and maritime industries—might still be on the table.

Those four alternatives are:

  • Expand the scope of the proposed standard to include all operations in general industry where beryllium exists only as a trace contaminant, where the materials used contain no more than 0.1 percent beryllium by weight (alternative 1a);
  • Use alternative 1a, but exempt operations where the employer can show that its employees will not be exposed to beryllium levels that meet or exceed the short-term exposure limits (alternative 1b);
  • Expand the scope of the proposal to include employers in the construction and maritime industries, which would cover abrasive blasters, pot tenders and cleanup staff working in construction and shipyards who have the potential for airborne beryllium exposure during blasting operations and during cleanup of spent media (alternative 2a); and
  • Update the regulatory and recommended limits of the tables that establish acceptable worker exposure to substances so that the proposed limits (short and long term) would apply to all employers and employees in general industry, shipyards and construction, including occupations where beryllium exists only as a trace contaminant, while all other provisions of the standard would be in effect only for employers and employees that fall within the scope of the proposed rule (alternative 2b).

Blasting and Beryllium

Beryllium is a component of coal, certain rock materials, volcanic dust and soil used in industrial applications. Breathing air containing beryllium can deposit beryllium particles in the lungs, creating immune-system and respiratory risks. Beryllium is a known human carcinogen and can cause chronic lung disease.

A 1999 OSHA Safety and Health Bulletin warned of the hazards of workplace exposures to the chemical and said that the current standard of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) may not be adequate to prevent chronic beryllium disease.

OSHA estimates that 23,000 workers in construction are “potentially exposed” to excessive levels of beryllium, putting them at risk of sensitization, chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.

©iStock.com / generalfmv

Beryllium, which is found in coal, certain rock materials, volcanic dust and soil, can cause chronic lung disease if too much of it is inhaled.

In 2012, the United States Steel Workers and other unions teamed up with Materion Brush Inc.—the largest producer of beryllium in the U.S.—to produce a draft text for a rule to lower the occupational PEL. The company also created an interactive website to help employers and workers use beryllium safely.

The coal-slag abrasive blasting industry would be “one of the most impacted groups” under the standard proposed by Materion.

SSPC, the society that represents the coatings industry, agrees. The group is seeking comments to send to OSHA regarding alternative 2a, which the group says is the alternative that would affect the coatings and abrasive blasting industries the most. SSPC asks its members to submit comments by Oct. 25.

   

Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Beryllium; Government; Government contracts; Health & Safety; North America; OSHA; OSHA; SSPC

Comment from tarek Elhusseiny, (8/26/2015, 3:43 AM)

Arsenic and beryllium both occur naturally in soil and rocks, and they're found at low levels in the slag or waste products left over after burning coal or processing copper ore. Long-term or repeated exposure over years to the toxic inorganic form of arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs and other parts of the body. Beryllium is carcinogenic as well, but inhaling small amounts of the metal dust also can cause chronic beryllium disease, a pneumonia-like condition involving breathing difficulty, weakness and possible heart problems


Comment from Car F., (8/26/2015, 11:15 AM)

I pity the government agencies that are charged with protecting workers in a climate decisively anti worker, with anti-worker politicians, with some anti-worker employers. Profits first, health and safety after, is a recipe for disaster and a threat to our lives.


Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/27/2015, 10:41 AM)

Car, I don't think the climate is anti-worker, but rather it's just as pro minimal labor costs as you can get (but I agree, it's all about the $$$s, not the quality, durability or the people anymore). Add to that the bureaucracy where if the agencies protecting workers see a need for a change, just the paperwork and approvals take 10 years to get in place.


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