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OSHA Leaving Beryllium Exposure Limits Intact for Construction, Shipyards

OSHA announced June 23 that it is proposing a rule affecting its beryllium standards for construction and shipyards. But the rule, to be published June 27 in the Federal Register, won't change the current exposure limits for those sectors, it will instead revise provisions such as housekeeping and PPE that were in the final standards that OSHA issued in January 2017 for the construction and shipyard industries.

"Representatives of the shipyards and construction industries, as well as members of Congress, raised concerns that they had not had a meaningful opportunity to comment on the application of the rule to their industries when the rule was developed in 2015-16. This proposal provides a new opportunity to comment on the rule for those industries and the public. The new proposal would make changes to the rule only for the shipyard and construction sectors. The general industry standard is unaffected by the proposal," DOL's news release about the new rule stated.

"The proposal for shipyards and construction would maintain the requirements for exposure limits (permissible exposure limit of 0.2 μg/m3 and short-term exposure limit of 2.0 μg/m3), which will continue to protect workers from a serious beryllium-related lung disease known as chronic beryllium disease. The proposal instead revises the application of ancillary provisions such as housekeeping and personal protective equipment in the January 2017 final standards for the construction and shipyard industries. OSHA has evidence that exposure in these industries is limited to a few operations and has information suggesting that requiring the ancillary provisions broadly may not improve worker protection and be redundant with overlapping protections in other standards. Accordingly, OSHA is seeking comment on, among other things, whether existing standards covering abrasive blasting in construction, abrasive blasting in shipyards, and welding in shipyards provide adequate protection for workers engaged in these operations."

Beryllium has been one of the issues watched closely by safety professionals who are trying to determine how OSHA and DOL will proceed on rules and enforcement under the Trump administration. OSHA issued its final rule on Jan. 6, two weeks before President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated.

When OSHA issued the rule, it said the measure aimed to reduce an estimated 62,000 workers' exposure to beryllium -- exposures that can cause lung diseases -- and set it to take effect in 60 days. But the effective date was delayed.

Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), responded critically. "No matter where they work, U.S. workers deserve protection from exposure to hazardous – and potentially lethal – toxic materials. The proposal announced [June 23] by the U.S. Department of Labor to weaken standards that limit exposure to beryllium for shipyard and construction workers is a step backwards. Beryllium can cause debilitating lung disease as well as lung cancer. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent more than a decade on the rulemaking process for the standard that would be severely weakened by the proposal announced today. It is well documented that shipyard and construction workers can be exposed to beryllium. They need the same protections as other workers – including monitoring and assessing exposure to potential harm and taking steps to eliminate hazards which can lead to life-threatening diseases."

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunication, medical care, and defense. It is highly toxic when beryllium-containing materials are processed in a way that releases airborne beryllium dust, fume, or mist into the workplace air that can be then inhaled by workers, according to DOL, which said in January that the current permissible exposure limits were based on decades-old studies. When OSHA published the rule, it estimated the rule would annually save the lives of 94 workers from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease. Workers in foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, grinding beryllium metal and alloys, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing, and dental lab work are the majority of the workers who are at risk, according to the agency.

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