In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its final rule which will significantly lower occupational exposure to beryllium, a material which, while being indispensable in numerous industries, has the potential to cause extreme lung diseases. The updated standards cover general industry, construction, and shipyards. Employers will now be required to take extended measures that will cover an estimated 62,000 workers in 7,300 establishments from the hazards of beryllium exposure in the workplace.

This Beryllium rule might be subjected to repeal using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), in the same way the Volks Rule is currently being challenged in Congress. The CRA is a way for Congress to pass a filibuster proof resolution of disapproval of any executive act within 60 days of Congressional sessions after the rule takes place.

Because the President has the opportunity to veto the disapproval, the CRA has only been successfully used once, in repealing an Ergonomics OSHA rule issued in November 2000 near the end of the Clinton administration, when the newly elected President George W. Bush failed to veto the Republican Congress’ action.

Beryllium is a metal element which is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Between its incredible strength-to-weight ratio and high melting point, it plays a fundamental role in aerospace, telecommunications, information technology, defense, medical, and nuclear industries. Additionally beneficial are its high thermal stability and conductivity, reflectivity, and transparency. Those working outside of beryllium’s primary industries would know it from its uses in cellular telephone and aircraft manufacturing. Those currently at the greatest risk are workers in foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, grinding beryllium metal and alloys, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing and dental lab work. Beryllium exposure is also notable in industries where coal-burning is performed, and where abrasive blasters release beryllium into the breathable atmosphere through the use of slag blasting abrasives.

The metal was originally known as glucinium, from the Greek word “glykys” (which means “sweet”) as a result of its sweet taste. It was quickly discovered, however, that beryllium is extremely toxic and has since been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a human carcinogen for its capacity to cause lung cancer. It is primarily toxic when materials containing beryllium are processed in a manner which releases its dust, fumes, or mist into a work atmosphere where they can be inhaled by workers. Because of beryllium’s ability to trigger severe lung disease in those exposed to it on a regular basis, OSHA created its final rule to revise permissible exposure limits it previously based on outdated scientific studies.

On top of lung cancer, exposure to beryllium and its compounds has the potential to cause Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). CBD is a severe lung disease which can lead to serious debilitation or death. Symptoms may develop quickly, or may be delayed for months or years after exposure depending on the individual and the level and frequency of their exposure to beryllium. The symptoms may continue to worsen even after the worker is no longer exposed. Some symptoms of CBD include weight loss, cough, fatigue, fever, and night sweats, among others.

The adverse health effects caused by beryllium exposure have been widely known for decades. OSHA’s final rule addresses its current PEL which is severely outdated and unable to adequately protect workers from disease. Although the impending reduction in PEL is drastic at a staggering 90 percent, OSHA is confident that advances in modern technology will easily allow employers to access the means to meet requirements. Based on scientific studies, many employers (such as the U.S. Department of Energy) have already begun to take the necessary steps to moderate and control beryllium exposure.

“Outdated exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from beryllium exposure,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “OSHA’s new standard is based on a strong foundation of science and consensus on the need for action, including peer-reviewed scientific evidence, a model standard developed by industry and labor, current consensus standards and extensive public outreach. The new limits will reduce exposures and protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.”

The final rule will dramatically lower the eight-hour permissible exposure limit from the previous level of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Where exposure is above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meters, employers will be required to take appropriate measures to lower the airborne beryllium concentration through engineering and work practice controls. The short-term exposure limit will be 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter over a 15-minute sampling period.

Further, the rule explains that employers must control access to work areas where there is a high exposure to beryllium, provide necessary respiratory protection, and provide personal protective equipment and clothing in situations where there is the potential for high exposure or skin contact. Employers must also create and implement plans which detail how they will measure workplace beryllium exposure and control it thereafter, and how they will administer beryllium-specific training programs. Certain workers exposed to beryllium must be offered medical examinations at the employers’ expense; if, after the examination, the employee is found to be suffering from beryllium-related health effects, the employer must provide reasonable accommodations to that worker in order to control their exposure.

It is OSHA’s hope that once the final rule reaches its maximum effect over the next 3 years, it will prevent 90 beryllium-related fatalities and further prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related diseases annually.

Employers have plenty of time to meet the new requirements and arrange for implementing the appropriate protections detailed by the final rule. The rule officially goes into effect on March 21, 2017, but you have until March 18, 2018 to comply with the majority of its provisions. You then have another year (March 11, 2019) to install required change rooms and showers, and another year after that (March 10, 2020) to install engineering controls, such as ventilation systems.


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