After decades of debate and scientific research, OSHA released their final rule on beryllium occupational exposure earlier this month. The new standard will effectively lower exposure limits, restrict access to high-exposure areas, and provide more protection to exposed workers.
Beryllium, a rare metal, has properties that make it extremely valuable in the aerospace, defense, electronics, energy, and medical industries (OSHA 2017). It is exceptionally light, weighing less than aluminum, yet retains steel-like strength. Despite its remarkable attributes, it is extremely toxic and workers who inhale it have an increased risk of developing life-threatening disease. Industries and activities at risk of exposure to beryllium include:
- Beryllium production
- Beryllium oxide ceramics and composites
- Nonferrous foundries
- Secondary smelting, refining and alloying
- Precision turned products
- Copper rolling, drawing, and extruding
- Dental Laboratories (OSHA 2017)
Approximately 62,000 workers that are exposed to beryllium will be covered by the new standards.
Health Effects of Beryllium Exposure
The negative health effects associated with beryllium have been known for decades. Inhalation or skin contact with beryllium dust puts one at risk of developing a debilitating disease of the lungs, such as chronic beryllium disease (CBD) or lung cancer.
CBD, also known as berylliosis, is a pulmonary disease that can cause serious disability or death. Symptoms of CBD include:
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained cough
- Weight loss
- Night sweats (OSHA 2017)
After exposure to the metal, the onset of CBD can either occur immediately or years later and continue to progress even after a worker is no longer exposed.
Lung cancer from exposure to beryllium can be developed by inhaling dust, fumes, or mist that contains beryllium. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program identify beryllium as a human carcinogen (OSHA 2017).
Even those who do not work directly with beryllium are at risk. Secretaries and office workers in plants where the metal is used have contracted CBD after incidental contact.
Knowledge of the health consequences, an outdated OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL), science supporting more worker protection, and widely available protection technology all contributed to the movement for updated standards.
The Final Rule on Beryllium
The first beryllium PEL was set in 1948 by the Atomic Energy Commission, years before OSHA was founded in 1971 (AIHA 2015). The PEL was one of the first standards adopted by OSHA and allowed an exposure of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3). The new final rule expands the coverage to include:
- A new PEL of 0.2 µg/m3, averaged over 8 hours.
- A short-term exposure limit of 2.0 µg/m3 over a 15 minute sampling period.
- Limited access to high-exposure areas.
- Employers must provide respiratory protection and PPE when there is potential high exposure (both respiratory and dermal contact).
- Employers must evaluate exposure, have a written control plan, and provide workers with beryllium training.
- Employers must provide medical examinations to determine if there is a beryllium related health effect in exposed workers. If one is detected, they must offer accommodations to reduce further exposure (OSHA 2017).
The primary way to control exposures should be through engineering and work practice controls. Engineering controls may include process isolation, ventilated enclosures, or local exhaust ventilation. Work practice controls include keeping surfaces clean using a HEPA-filtered vacuum (OSHA FAQ).
OSHA estimates that this new rule will save 94 workers' lives a year, as well as prevent 46 cases of chronic beryllium disease. The final rule will take effect on March 10th of this year, and employers have a year to implement most of the standard, two years to implement requirements for change rooms and showers, and three years to implement engineering control requirements (OSHA 2017).
ORR Safety is one of the nation's leading distributors of PPE, safety equipment, and corporate programs. We know workplace safety and want to help ensure your work environment is the safest it can be. If you have any questions on beryllium, respiratory protection, or OSHA standards, please do not hesitate to contact us to speak with a safety expert.
AIHA (2015) OSHA Proposes Lower PEL for Beryllium. Retrieved from: https://www.aiha.org/publications-and-resources/TheSynergist/Industry%20News/Pages/OSHA-to-Propose-Lower-PEL-for-Beryllium.aspx
OSHA. Frequently Asked Questions: Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/berylliumrule/faq.html
OSHA (2017) Protecting Workers' from Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds: Final Rule Overview. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3821.pdf