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After 14-Year Delay, OSHA Finally Proposes Lowering Legal Limit for Permissible Workplace Beryllium Exposure

Rule Would Save Some Workers’ Lives, But Still Leaves Too Many Unprotected

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a proposed rule to modernize the beryllium workplace exposure limit. OSHA’s announcement comes 14 years after Public Citizen first petitioned for stronger protections for workers exposed to toxic levels of beryllium in a variety of workplace settings.

Beryllium – which is used in the construction industry, metalwork, electronics manufacturing, the nuclear energy sector and laboratories that work with nuclear materials – is known to cause cancer and other fatal diseases, such as chronic beryllium disease of the lungs, when inhaled. The estimated 23,000 construction workers who come in contact with beryllium every day while performing open-air abrasive blasting are at especially high risk for contracting beryllium-related diseases.

Public Citizen has long argued that lowering the legal limit for workplace beryllium exposure – known technically as the permissible exposure limit or PEL – was necessary to save lives and spare workers these harmful effects. In 2001, following years of inaction by OSHA, Public Citizen petitioned OSHA to lower the PEL for beryllium to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, one-tenth of the current PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The petition also asked OSHA to require medical surveillance of beryllium-exposed workers.

However, Public Citizen’s petition noted at the time that even a PEL of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air could prove too high should additional scientific evidence emerge of beryllium’s harms below this level. Because of OSHA’s inexcusable delay in proposing the rule, new evidence has in fact emerged showing that OSHA’s proposed PEL of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air (and even its alternative proposed PEL of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air) would still leave too many workers exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium.

In 2009, the expert standard-setting organization, the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACIH), lowered its recommended maximum threshold for workplace beryllium exposure to 0.05 micrograms per cubic meter of air, one quarter of the limit proposed today by OSHA. ACIH’s decision was based on its assessment, subsequently corroborated by a separate 2012 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study, documenting that beryllium sensitization (the precursor to chronic beryllium disease) can occur at exposures significantly below average beryllium concentrations of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

OSHA acknowledges this fact in today’s proposal, stating that “significant risks of sensitization and [chronic beryllium disease] remain” at both its proposed PEL of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air and its alternative proposal of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

“It is unconscionable that it has taken 14 years since our petition to force OSHA to act concerning the tens of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers whose health it is obligated to protect,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

It has been more than 15 years since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) finalized an action level of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for beryllium-exposed workers at DOE facilities, including DOE contractors. This action level, while not an absolute limit like OSHA’s PEL, has triggered certain workplace precautions and control measures. OSHA’s proposal includes an action level of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air that would similarly trigger protective measures but would stop short of prohibiting exposures to this now-acknowledged, dangerous concentration of beryllium.

“After so many years of foot-dragging by OSHA, it is time that the tens of thousands of workers exposed to beryllium on a daily basis get the protections they need and deserve,” said Susan Harley, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “Public Citizen urges OSHA to finalize a much safer beryllium standard without delay, with a PEL that will protect all workers from the devastating effects of beryllium exposure.”