As you may have heard, OSHA has created a new rule to protect workers from exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds. This rule covers a relatively small pool of roughly 62,000 people in the US. Nevertheless, OSHA estimates that 90 beryllium-related deaths and 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease will be prevented each year once the full effects of the new rule are realized.
What is Beryllium and What are Its Health Risks?
Beryllium is a metal that is both strong and lightweight. As such, it has applications in various industries, like aerospace, electronics, defense, and more. Beryllium is often combined with copper to create an electrical and thermal conductive alloy that is both hard and corrosion resistant. The compound beryllium oxide is used to create ceramics for electronics and similar equipment because of its natural electrical insulation.
Two major issues arise from exposure to beryllium. The first is Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). This is a pulmonary disease that causes severe debilitation or death and develops after a worker inhales or touches beryllium with their skin. Workers who show signs and symptoms of CBD often complain of shortness of breath, inexplicable cough, fatigue, fever, and night sweats. These symptoms present inconsistently, meaning that some workers show signs of CBD quickly while others exhibit symptoms months or years after exposure to beryllium. Unfortunately, simply removing the worker from exposure doesn’t always halt the progression of CBD.
The second issue caused by beryllium exposure is lung cancer. Beryllium is a listed as a Group 1 carcinogen – causes cancer in humans – by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) also lists beryllium as a known human carcinogen. Workers develop lung cancer from beryllium by inhaling fumes, dust, or mist containing beryllium.
How OSHA’s New Beryllium Rule Protects Workers
The new OSHA beryllium rule sets new standards for both permissible exposure limit (PEL) and short-term exposure limit (STEL) for workers who are exposed to beryllium. The new PEL will be 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over 8 hours. The new STEL will be 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute sampling period. Employers will be required to put in place engineering and work practice controls to prevent excessive beryllium from becoming airborne where workers can inhale it.
Employers will also be required to limit access to high exposure areas and provide necessary equipment to prevent inhalation and skin contact where applicable. Additionally, exposure control plans must be developed and implemented, and beryllium-specific training must also be provided. Finally, employers must provide medical examinations to exposed workers and offer additional workspace accommodations to those who suffered from beryllium exposure-related illnesses.
OSHA had originally planned to begin enforcement on March 12, 2018, but has pushed the date back to May 11, 2018 to “ensure that stakeholders are aware of their obligations, and that OSHA provides consistent instructions to its inspectors.” This is a generous extension on the one-year timeline originally set last January. So, if you haven’t already audited your supply chain for compliance with the new beryllium rule set by OSHA, then it’s not too late to communicate with your partners and ensure that everyone has made accommodations.
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