Protecting Workers from Beryllium: OSHA’s Final Rule

Enforcement starts May 11.

The final rule of OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to Beryllium standard strengthens worker protection against exposure to this metal element, which can be hazardous if inhaled. The rule contains standards for general industry, construction and shipyards. It became effective May 20, 2017, and OSHA will start enforcing it May 11, 2018.

Companies have until March 11, 2019 to provide required changing rooms and showers for workers exposed to beryllium dust, and the deadline for implementing engineering controls for beryllium dust is March 10, 2020. 

Where is beryllium used?

Beryllium is used in everything from electronics components to aerospace materials and is often alloyed with other metals.

Copper beryllium lends itself to aerospace material production and electrical engineering applications because of its high melting point and excellent thermal and electrical conductivity. Copper beryllium alloys that contain cobalt and nickel are used for control bearings, high speed plastic molds and relay blades. Beryllium nickel has critical spring properties and reinforces spot-welding electrodes, springs and non-sparking tools.

Beryllium oxide ceramics are used in high density electronic circuits, microwave communication systems, medical electronics, oil and gas exploration tools and industrial lasers.

Beryllium may be present in coal, some rock materials, volcanic dust and soil used for industrial applications. The coal- or copper-based slag sometimes used for abrasive blasting may contain trace amounts of beryllium.

How is it dangerous?

Small particles of beryllium can settle deep into lungs, scarring the lungs in what’s known as chronic beryllium disease (CBD). The disease occurs when someone inhales beryllium dust or fumes and develops a sensitivity (similar to an allergy) to the substance, which triggers the scarring. Early stages may not cause symptoms, but in later stages the person might experience:

  • Persistent dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Joint pain
  • Appetite loss

Because of beryllium’s high toxicity, employees have developed chronic beryllium disease with even minimal exposure.5 Beryllium sensitivity and CBD can develop directly after exposure or many years afterward. Statistics suggest that 10 to 16 percent of workers exposed to beryllium become sensitized each year. About half of sensitized workers develop CBD. 

CBD is treatable but not curable. OSHA projects that the new rule will eventually save 90 lives, prevent 46 new cases of CBD and provide $590.9 million in net benefits per year. 

Who is at risk?

Workers in various trades and industries may be exposed to inhaled beryllium or beryllium alloys, including:

  • Machinists employed in ceramics and nuclear materials manufacturing
  • Construction and shipyard workers involved with sandblasting and industrial ceramics
  • Welders
  • Workers in precision machine shops, metal recycling businesses, mining, tool and die manufacturing and electronics
  • Boilermakers, roofing installers and sheet metal workers

Key points of the OSHA rule

Current workplace standards prevent the release of large quantities of beryllium dust into the air. Employers have used engineering controls, PPE requirements and work practices to protect workers from exposure.

OSHA’s final rule replaces a 40-year-old rule and reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium from 2.0 to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over 8 hours. Workers may have a short term exposure of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute sampling period. Standards within the new rule require employers to use ventilation or enclosures to reduce exposure and to provide respirators when engineering controls do not provide adequate protection. 

Companies must also limit worker access to high risk areas, develop a written beryllium exposure control plan and train employees about beryllium hazards. Other requirements for employers include providing medical examinations to monitor workers exposed to beryllium and medical removal protection benefits for workers diagnosed with CBD.

Find the beryllium standard for construction, 29 CFR 1926.1124, here.

 

John Ross has written about industrial, automotive and consumer technologies for 17 years.

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