Protections against exposure to beryllium allotted to workers are far too weak, especially in the construction industry, where an estimated 23,000 construction workers come in contact with beryllium every day while performing open-air blasting.
Beryllium levels can be extremely elevated due to high dust concentrations on construction sites and can result in chronic beryllium disorder. Patients gradually develop cough, chest pain, progressive shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue. Loss of appetite, weight loss, lung and right-sided heart failure may occur in people with advanced disease.
On September 4, 2014, the Obama Administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) received the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed rule to allow the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to update the Beryllium standard. As detailed in Executive Order 12866, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is required to complete its review of such rules within 90 days of receipt, with an additional 30-day review extension allowed if needed.
But eight months have passed, and there is no sign that OMB is close to completing its review.
High dust concentrations on construction sites can lead to extremely elevated beryllium levels. OSHA has said that 70 percent of all worksites where abrasive blasting is performed – such as construction sites and shipbuilding yards – have detectable beryllium levels. While some workers who engage in open-air blasting are protected from high dust levels through air respirators and protective clothing supplied by employers, many are still being exposed to the harmful effects of beryllium because employers don’t provide protection.
The U.S. Department of Energy realized this when, in 2000, it enacted an exposure limit of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour working day, in all of its facilities.
In 2001, Public Citizen petitioned OSHA to follow the Department of Energy’s lead and lower the exposure limit for beryllium by 90 percent from its current threshold of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Outrageously, OSHA opted to deny our petition even though it had already acknowledged that its “current permissible exposure limits for beryllium in the workplace now appear to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease.” In 2014, we requested that a specific beryllium standard be created with an even lower personal exposure limit of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air for the construction industry. We recommended the new standard to include better exposure monitoring, broader regulated areas, enhanced medical surveillance and clearer verification of compliance with the standard. OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health agreed with our recommendations.
The proposal’s fate now lies with OMB. For nearly thirteen years, OSHA has been dragging its feet on developing a modernized beryllium standard. It is time that the tens of thousands of workers exposed to beryllium on a daily basis get the protections they deserve. We urge the OMB to immediately complete its review of the proposed beryllium standard and allow OSHA to move forward with its public comment period.
Keith Wrightson is the workplace safety expert for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.