The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued a final rule modifying a 40-year-old standard pertaining to exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds. It contains new requirements for general, construction and shipyard industries. Similar to the recent changes to crystalline silica regulations, the rule is anticipated to save lives and protect workers from serious illnesses. 


Beryllium and beryllium compounds are lightweight, extremely strong metals used in the aerospace, electrical, energy, telecommunications, medical and defense fields. Beryllium-copper alloys are frequently used for their electrical and thermal conductivity as well as their hardness. Beryllium oxide is used as a component in ceramics for electronics and other electrical equipment because of its heat conductivity, high strength, hardness and electrical insulating properties. 


Unfortunately, beryllium is highly toxic when inhaled. Inhaling airborne beryllium can result in a lung condition known as chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a debilitating pulmonary disease that can result in serious health complications or even death. Common symptoms of CBD include shortness of breath, unexplained cough, fatigue, weight loss, fever and night sweats. Exposure victims may experience severe symptoms almost immediately; however, victims may not experience symptoms for months or years following contact. 


Beryllium has also been known to cause lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes it as a Group 1 carcinogen, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists considers it an A1—confirmed human carcinogen.


Roughly 62,000 employees are exposed to beryllium every day. A vast majority are general industry workers performing operations such as beryllium metal and ceramic production, nonferrous foundries and fabrication of beryllium alloys. An estimated 11,500 are in the construction and shipyard industries. These workers are often involved with abrasive blasting operations that use slags containing trace amounts of beryllium. Though these activities involve only small amounts of the hazardous substance, highly concentrated levels in airborne dusts can be extremely harmful to humans. 


The new rule replaces an outdated permissible exposure limit for beryllium that was ill-equipped to protect worker health. It reflects years of input from industry and labor stakeholders, small business representatives, subject matter experts and other partnering agencies. David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told the Chicago Tribune that the consensus was quite a coup.


“For many years, beryllium was strategically so important that the government and the beryllium industry fought hard against a more protective standard,” he said.


Upon issuance of the new standard, OSHA indicated in a press release that the new rule will do the following:


• Reduce the permissible exposure limit for beryllium to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over 8 hours.


• Establish a new short-term exposure limit for beryllium of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over a 15-­minute sampling period.


• Require employers to use engineering and work practice controls (such as ventilation or enclosure) to limit worker exposure to beryllium, provide respirators when controls cannot adequately limit exposure, limit worker access to high-exposure areas, develop a written exposure control plan and train workers on beryllium hazards.


• Require employers to make available medical exams to monitor exposed workers and provide medical removal protection benefits to workers identified with a beryllium-related disease.


OSHA estimates that the new rule will save 94 lives and prevent 46 new cases of CBD every year.


“We know there are many dozens of workers who get sick every year from chronic beryllium disease, and [now] that will change,” Michaels said.


The rule is expected to save employers more than $560 million in medical expenses and other savings each year.


These standards were slated to begin taking effect on March 10, 2017, but the date was extended to May 20 for further review of law and policy. According to OSHA, employers must implement most provisions of the standard within one year of the effective date of the rule, implement the requirements for change rooms and showers within two years after the effective date and implement the engineering control requirements within three years after the effective date. An estimated 7,300 businesses nationwide will be impacted by the new regulations.


Hopefully, these new regulatory provisions will improve worker safety and provide greater awareness of the dangers of beryllium exposure. For more information, visit www.osha.gov/beryllium, or contact OSHA directly for technical assistance about effective safety and health programs, workplace consultations, and training and education.