OSHA to Turn Down the Heavy Metal

By: Tyler Levenson

Environmental hazards in the work place are a constant threat to many employees, especially for those employees who are currently engaged in fields predicated on manual labor. Toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury have been at the focal point of employment litigation for years. Many administrations have sought to limit exposure and standardize safety regulations, so as to protect workers from injury and disease. On August 6th, 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) released a new proposal that would lower the Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”) of beryllium to a fraction of what it is today, while providing workers with respiratory protection and medical surveillance.[1]

Elemental beryllium is a grey metal with several physical properties that make it essential to aerospace, telecommunications, defense, medical, and nuclear industries.[2] Beryllium is stronger than steel, but lighter than aluminum.[3] It has an extremely high melting point, excellent conductivity, and is even transparent to X-rays.[4] All these factors and more have resulted in beryllium being classified as a “strategic and critical material” by the U.S. Department of Defense.[5]

Beryllium has become essential to the fields listed above, and as a result thousands of workers in the U.S. are exposed to high levels of beryllium each day. OSHA estimates that 35,000 workers in general industry alone are exposed to high levels of beryllium on a daily basis.[6] The most common method of beryllium exposure is through airborne beryllium in the form of fumes and mist, because of this, workers exposed are put in jeopardy of developing conditions such as lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease.[7]

This new OSHA proposal would reduce the PEL of beryllium to a tenth of its current allowable level, from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 µg/m3.[8] It would protect those 35,000 workers from continued exposure to high levels of beryllium, while preventing an estimated 50 illnesses and 100 deaths associated with beryllium-caused diseases among exposed workers.[9] The cost to implement this proposal is estimated, by OSHA, to be upwards of $38 million dollars.[10] However, this cost is minuscule when compared to the estimated benefits of the proposal that fall within the range of $255 and $576 million dollars per year. [11]

OSHA modeled much of its proposal off of work done by Materion Corp., in cooperation with the United Steelworkers.[12] Materion is the only U.S. producer of primary beryllium, the most commonly used form of beryllium by industries, while the United Steelworkers are the primary union for workers exposed to beryllium who are seeking representation.[13] The two groups came together in hopes of amending the industry standards on beryllium, a long overdue change according to OSHA administrator David Michaels.[14] In 2012, the groups submitted their work to OSHA.[15] This proposal is the result of a successful partnership between industry and labor union.

Looking forward, there is now a focus on expanding the proposal’s reach beyond that of general industry workers. The next step, according to OSHA officials and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, is to obtain coverage for construction workers and shipyard workers.[16] All workers in these fields are exposed to beryllium on a regular basis, but fall outside the coverage provided by this new proposal. More than 23,000 workers in these fields are still being exposed.[17] Many of these workers are even experiencing beryllium levels above the current 2.0 microgram limit.[18] OSHA estimates expanding coverage to these workers would save the lives of 17 workers annual, while only increasing the cost another $18.2 million, an amount so low it barely puts a dent in the aforementioned estimated benefits.[19]

This proposal, although long overdue, is a step in the right direction. It will result in safer working conditions for many employees who face inherently dangerous condition on a regular basis. And with great potential to expand, it may not be long before thousands of more employees are able to reap the benefits as well.

[1] Kyle W. Morrison, Reducing Beryllium Exposure: OSHA Proposes to Significantly Strengthen its Rule on Exposure to the Versatile but Potentially Deadly Metal, Safety and Health Mag. (Aug. 23, 2015), http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/12809-reducing-beryllium-exposure.

[2] Occupational Safety and Health Administration, https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/beryllium/ (last visited Sept. 3, 2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Robert Iafolla, OSHA Announces Proposal to Lower Beryllium Limit, 45 O.S.H. Rep., 829 (2015), http://0-news.bna.com.libweb.hofstra.edu/osln/display/story_list.adp?mode=ep&frag_id=74263198&item=topic4&prod=osln.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Kyle W. Morrison, Reducing Beryllium Exposure: OSHA Proposes to Significantly Strengthen its Rule on Exposure to the Versatile but Potentially Deadly Metal, Safety and Health Mag. (Aug. 23, 2015), http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/12809-reducing-beryllium-exposure.

[15] Robert Iafolla, OSHA Announces Proposal to Lower Beryllium Limit, 45 O.S.H. Rep., 829 (2015), http://0-news.bna.com.libweb.hofstra.edu/osln/display/story_list.adp?mode=ep&frag_id=74263198&item=topic4&prod=osln.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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