Beryllium is a remarkable metal: lighter than aluminum but strong as steel. It’s found in a wide range of products, from cell phones to satellites, is an important material for the defense industry, and it is an essential component of nuclear weapons.
But exposure to beryllium can be deadly. The danger arises when beryllium-containing materials are processed in a way that releases the metal into the air that is breathed by workers.
On Aug. 6, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a long-awaited measure aimed at protecting workers from harmful exposure to beryllium by proposing to dramatically lower the amount of beryllium allowed in the air that workers breathe.
The current allowable amount was set originally by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, and adopted by OSHA in 1971, before the risks of long-term exposure were well understood. But we have known for decades that the allowable exposure levels for beryllium are inadequate.
The proposed rule − which would apply to about 35,000 workers − is significant for many reasons, but two are especially noteworthy.
First, this rule will save lives and reduce suffering.
We estimate that each year it will prevent almost 100 deaths and 50 illnesses. This includes cases of the debilitating, incurable condition known as chronic beryllium disease, as well as lung cancer.
Second, we are able to make this announcement because of a historic collaborative effort between industry and labor.
Together, the nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers union, which represents many of those who work with beryllium, agreed that greater protections were needed. In 2012, they approached OSHA to suggest a stronger standard.
At the time, we were already hard at work on a beryllium standard. Our rulemaking professionals formally asked for public input in 2002, and in the following years we visited work sites, performed risk assessments and calculated potential impacts on small businesses. But the joint proposal from Materion and the Steelworkers gave our efforts new momentum.
“The proposal is strong because of unprecedented partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers.” – Secretary of Labor Tom Perez
When we announced the proposal, Materion CEO and Chairman Richard Hipple and United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard joined me in a media teleconference to underscore the significance of their efforts. Together, we have created a historic opportunity to protect thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.
Our proposal would lower the eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter – a 90 percent reduction. The proposal includes other important requirements, such as medical surveillance and additional training. I invite everyone to read the proposal and related materials on the OSHA website. Written comments may be submitted until Nov. 5, 2015.
For me, personally, this is very rewarding. It is my hope that other industries where workers are exposed to deadly substances will join with representatives of those workers to propose ways to reduce exposures, prevent diseases and save lives.
But this is also an important milestone. In 1999, as assistant secretary of energy for environmental safety and health, I issued the final regulation lowering allowable worker exposure to beryllium in nuclear weapons facilities to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.
I was also the chief architect of the historic compensation program, administered by the Department of Labor, that has provided more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who developed chronic beryllium disease after being exposed to beryllium.
OSHA’s new proposed rule is the beginning of the final chapter of our making peace with the past. Once we finish, workers exposed to beryllium will be protected and we will save the lives and lungs of hundreds.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.