OSHA Proposes Lower PEL for Beryllium

Published August 6, 2015

Updated August 12, 2015

OSHA has issued a proposed rule that would lower the agency’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium in general industry from 2 µg/m3 to 0.2 µg/m3. According to OSHA, the new rule 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.

Beryllium, a naturally occurring element, has applications in many industries, including electronics, aerospace, and metals manufacturing. According to OSHA, the majority of current worker exposures to beryllium occur in operations such as foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing and dental lab work. An OSHA fact sheet (PDF) states that the proposed rule would not cover some workers exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials, including those employed at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production facilities, and those performing abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyards industries. The agency will seek comment during the rulemaking process on whether these workers should also be covered by the final rule.

Exposure to beryllium mist, dust, and fumes can cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD), which scars lung tissue and impairs the lungs’ ability to get oxygen to the bloodstream. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies (PDF) beryllium as carcinogenic to humans.

The current PEL of 2 µg/m3 is rooted in a standard established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948. OSHA adopted the standard as one of its first PELs when the agency was created in 1971.

During a media teleconference on Aug. 6, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, PhD, MPH, highlighted the significance of the “historic collaboration effort between industry and labor” that helped advance the beryllium standard in the rulemaking process. He credited Materion, the largest U.S. producer of beryllium, and the United Steelworkers, a union that represents many of the workers who handle beryllium in their jobs, for jointly suggesting a stronger standard.

“It’s noteworthy that [Materion and the United Steelworkers union] agreed that greater protections are needed,” he said. “Together, they created a framework for moving forward with a rule, and they brought it to OSHA in 2012. At that time, we were already hard at work on the beryllium standard, but the joint proposal from Materion and the Steelworkers gave our efforts new momentum and propelled us forward.”

Documents available from the Materion website indicate that the company has used an exposure limit of 0.2 µg/m3, OSHA’s proposed PEL value, since at least 2011.

This proposed rule is “a long overdue step toward protecting workers from harmful exposure to beryllium,” Michaels said.

The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 7. OSHA will accept public comments on the proposal until Nov. 5, 2015.

Related:

An article published in the August 2013 issue of The Synergist discusses the challenges of sampling and analyzing beryllium. AIHA members can read the article “The Beryllium Quandary​” in the Synergist archives.