Too Little, Too Late: 14 Years After Petition, OSHA’s Proposed Beryllium Exposure Limit Is Still Too High

Nov. 5, 2015

Too Little, Too Late: 14 Years After Petition, OSHA’s Proposed Beryllium Exposure Limit Is Still Too High

Public Citizen Urges Agency to Lower Limit, and Not Exclude 40 Percent of Exposed Workers from the Standard

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should lower the amount of beryllium workers may be exposed to further than the agency is proposing, Public Citizen told OSHA today.

In comments submitted to the agency, Public Citizen urged OSHA to finalize a more stringent exposure limit for beryllium at 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air, in line with current scientific evidence on the dangers of beryllium. In August, OSHA proposed a limit of 0.2 micrograms – 14 years after Public Citizen petitioned the agency to issue stronger protections for workers exposed to toxic levels of beryllium in a variety of workplace settings.

“It is unconscionable that it has taken 14 years since our petition for 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.

Beryllium is used in many industries, including construction, metalwork, electronics manufacturing, the nuclear energy sector and laboratories that work with nuclear materials. When inhaled, it can cause lung cancer and a fatal lung condition known as chronic beryllium disease.

In 2001, 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 exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The petition noted that subsequent scientific research might find evidence of beryllium’s harms lower than this level. During the years that OSHA delayed, that’s exactly what happened.

In it comments, Public Citizen asked that OSHA lower its proposed short-term exposure limit from 2.0 to 1.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Public Citizen also urged OSHA to extend the protections of the new rule to the 23,000 construction and shipyard workers (40 percent of all beryllium-exposed workers), whom OSHA proposed to exclude entirely from its rule, ostensibly because those workers are shielded from harm through existing respiratory protection requirements. Both Public Citizen and OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health disagreed.

“Construction and shipyard workers exposed to beryllium on a daily basis deserve the same protections as other at-risk workers,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “While the proposed rule is a step in the right direction, Public Citizen urges OSHA to finalize a safer beryllium standard without delay, with safeguards to protect all exposed workers from the devastating effects of beryllium.”

Read the comments.

Learn more about Public Citizen’s work on beryllium.