Health Letter, April 2017
By Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H.
Workers across the country can now literally breathe easier. Last Friday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule to protect workers from beryllium exposure. According to OSHA, the new rule will save 94 lives and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) each year.
Beryllium is a metal present in many materials used in the aerospace, defense, telecommunications, automotive, electronics and medical specialty industries. Approximately 62,000 people are exposed to beryllium in workplaces across the country. OSHA estimates that 11,500 construction and shipyard workers come in contact with beryllium while performing open-air abrasive blasting.
When workers inhale beryllium dust, they risk contracting lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such as CBD of the lungs, even when they inhale very low levels of the toxic metal as dust. CBD is an incurable, devastating lung disease that gradually scars the lungs, disabling and ultimately killing many of those afflicted.
OSHA first attempted to strengthen protections for workers from beryllium exposure in 1975, but industry backlash stymied the process and ultimately killed the rule. That’s why 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 workers’ exposure to beryllium.
In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity profiled Bruce Revers, a retired machinist and CBD patient living with the devastating effects of beryllium exposure. Doctors diagnosed Mr. Revers with CBD in 2009 after years of exposure to beryllium in the workplace. He reported that breathing is so difficult that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle to complete. Even though Mr. Revers wore a respirator in the factory where he worked, he still contracted CBD because the standards for allowable exposure are still much too high to be safe for workers in these industries.
In 2015, OSHA finally released a proposed version of the 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. The final beryllium rule reduces 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.
After decades of fighting for a stronger beryllium standard, Public Citizen is celebrating this long overdue victory for workers. We will continue to fight for strong safeguards for working people in the next administration.