New Rule Will Save 94 Lives, Prevent 46 New Cases of Chronic Beryllium Disease Each Year
WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than fifteen years after Public Citizen petitioned for stronger protections for workers exposed to toxic levels of beryllium in a variety of workplace settings, the federal government has finally issued a protective rule.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today issued a final rule to modernize the beryllium workplace exposure limit in general industry, in addition to the construction and shipyard trades.
“While we are frustrated that the rule has taken so long to complete, we commend OSHA for issuing this lifesaving rule,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Tens of thousands of workers will finally have the protections that they have lacked for far too much time.”
The final beryllium rule lowers the legal limit for workplace beryllium exposure – known technically as the permissible exposure limit (PEL) – to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour time-weighted average, one-tenth of the previous PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In addition to saving lives and preventing illness, OSHA projects the final rule will save the U.S. economy about $561 million each year.
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 (CBD) of the lungs, when even very low levels are inhaled. CBD is an incurable, devastating lung disease that gradually scars the lungs, disabling and ultimately killing many of those afflicted.
According to OSHA, 62,000 people are exposed to beryllium in the workplace. The estimated 11,500 construction and shipyard 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 PEL for beryllium was necessary to save lives and spare workers these harmful effects. In 2001, following years of inaction by OSHA, Public Citizen along with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union – which has since merged with the United Steelworkers – petitioned OSHA to lower the PEL for beryllium to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
In 2015, OSHA finally released a proposed beryllium rule, which originally excluded construction and shipyard workers. In its comments on the proposed rule, Public Citizen urged OSHA to lower the existing PEL and extend the protections of the new rule to these at-risk workers, which OSHA did in the final rule.
“Construction and shipyard workers exposed to beryllium on a daily basis deserve the same safeguards as other workers at risk from the deadly effects of this toxic metal,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “We are relieved that the final rule was changed to protect these workers.”