OSHA issued a direct final rule last week (May 4) that makes changes in the beryllium standard for general industry as it applies to processes, operations, or areas where workers may be exposed to materials containing less than 0.1 percent beryllium by weight. The direct final rule clarifies the definitions of Beryllium Work Area, emergency, dermal contact, and beryllium contamination, and it clarifies provisions for disposal and recycling.
The agency said the direct final rule will become effective on July 4, 2018, unless it receives significant adverse comments by June 4.
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in electronics and the defense industry, among others. Beryllium is an essential ingredient within most modern industrial workflows. The metal is sturdier than steel and lighter than aluminum, giving it an ideal strength-to-weight ratio. It also boasts a high melting point and facilitates optimal electrical conductivity. Accordingly, demand for the metal is consistently high. In all, American companies consumed 310 metric tons of beryllium that year, marking the fifth year in a row that consumption outpaced domestic production.
Understanding the impact
While beryllium serves an important purpose within the U.S. industrial sector, overexposure can cause serious health risks, including incurable chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer. The alloy is hazardous to workers and can cause serious medical complications if inhaled or touched. Employees that either inhale beryllium or come into contact with the metal develop a condition called beryllium sensitization, which is characterized by an immunological response that can, in turn, lead to the development of a long-term illness called chronic beryllium disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A number of serious symptoms accompany this condition, including fatigue, fever, joint pain, shortness of breath and weakness. Individuals with CBD are also at an increased risk for developing lung cancer.
Unfortunately, a significant number of industrial workers regularly work with or near beryllium, according to OSHA. An estimated 62,000 employees work in environments where the dust or gaseous residue from the metal is present.
The agency has projected that the updated regulations will save 90 lives from beryllium-related disease and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease each year. These safety and health improvements, it speculated, would lead more than $560 million in annual savings.
Implementing the new regulation
While rates of BSD and beryllium-related lung cancer have remained relatively stable for decades, OSHA felt the need to more effectively address the risk and, in 2015, initiated rulemaking proceedings centered on the metal. Following input from industry stakeholders and safety experts, the agency rolled out renewed beryllium regulations in January 2017. This final rule included numerous new provisions, including:
- Reduced PELs: OSHA has pushed down the beryllium PEL to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over an eight-hour span. The agency also lowered the short-term PEL to 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over a 15-minute period.
- New engineering requirements: OSHA would require industrial firms to develop engineering controls – i.e., ventilation systems or enclosures – designed to reduce beryllium exposure. The agency would also mandate the purchase and distribution of respirators for workers functioning in production areas where is difficult or impossible to control PEL levels. Finally, all of these precautions, along with applicable training activities, must be formally recorded as part of an organizational beryllium control plan.
- Medical exam availability: To comply with the new beryllium rule, businesses in the industrial space would be required to make medical examinations available to workers who come into contact with the metal during production.