Labor, Industry Get Behind Proposed Beryllium PEL

By Ed Rutkowski

June 1, 2016—Comments on OSHA’s proposed rule for beryllium indicate wide support for lowering the agency’s Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) from the current 2 µg/m3 to 0.2 µg/m3, according to a representative from OSHA’s directorate of enforcement. Speaking last week at AIHce 2016 in Baltimore, Tiffany Defoe, a health scientist in OSHA’s Office of Chemical Hazards, summarized feedback the agency received in response to the proposed rule, which would require employers to measure workers’ exposures to beryllium, limit their access to areas where exposures exceed the PEL, implement controls for reducing exposures, and train workers about beryllium-related hazards.

Exposure to particles, fumes, and mists from beryllium-containing materials can cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a potentially fatal respiratory disease. According to OSHA, the proposed rule would prevent 96 premature deaths and 50 new cases of CBD annually.

But as Defoe acknowledged, a significant risk of disease would remain even at the proposed PEL. Concerns about the feasibility of controlling exposures lower than 0.2 µg/m3 factored into the agency’s rulemaking, Defoe said.

Other aspects of the proposed rule that received significant attention during OSHA’s public comment period include the standard’s exemptions for the shipyard and construction industries and for workers in all industries who work with materials containing less than 0.1 percent beryllium by weight. The comments indicate widespread support for OSHA to develop a separate beryllium standard for shipyards and construction sites, Defoe said. Commenters’ views on the “trace contaminants exemption” were more mixed. “There was fairly significant support for either dropping or limiting the exemption, but we also received some comments from industry" that favored keeping it, Defoe said. “We're well aware that even in situations where beryllium is a trace contaminant, exposures can happen that could have adverse health effects.”

The proposed rule’s requirements for medical surveillance also generated substantial comment. According to the proposal, employers must provide CT scans for workers with long-term exposure above 0.2 µg/m3. Many of the comments focused on the potential adverse effects of the CT scans, which carry their own cancer risk and are not recommended for people at lower risk of lung disease, Defoe said.

OSHA’s beryllium standard has endured an exceptionally long history even compared to the agency’s typically sluggish rulemaking process. In 1999, several organizations petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for beryllium exposures in the workplace, an action that would have required the agency to prove that employees are in grave danger. OSHA declined the petition but initiated rulemaking in 2002 by publishing a request for information.

In 2009, with rulemaking stalled, OSHA received an unexpected boost from an unusual collaboration between industry and labor. Materion, one of two companies in the United States that manufactures beryllium, approached the United Steelworkers (USW) with a proposal to jointly develop a model beryllium standard for OSHA. The agency received the model standard in 2012 and incorporated much of it into its proposed rule, which was published in August 2015.

Despite widespread support for the proposed standard, the latest OSHA regulatory agenda provides no timetable for finalizing it.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734.

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