The beryllium rule lowers the legal limit for workplace exposure to beryllium, which causes painful and debilitating lung disease.
Beryllium – which is used in the construction industry, metalwork, electronics manufacturing, the nuclear energy sector and laboratories that work with nuclear materials – is known to cause lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such as chronic beryllium disease (CBD) of the lungs, when even very low levels are inhaled. CBD is an incurable, devastating lung disease that gradually scars the lungs, disabling and ultimately killing many of those afflicted.
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 62,000 people are exposed to beryllium in the workplace. The estimated 11,500 construction and shipyard workers who come in contact with beryllium every day while performing open-air abrasive blasting are at especially high risk for contracting beryllium-related diseases.
For decades, OSHA had maintained a legal limit for workplace beryllium exposure – known technically as the permissible exposure limit (PEL) – of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour time-weighted average. Occupational health experts have long argued that lowering the PEL for beryllium was necessary to save lives and spare workers these harmful effects. In 2001, Public Citizen along with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union – which has since merged with the United Steelworkers –petitioned OSHA to lower the PEL for beryllium to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, one-tenth of the previous PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
OSHA’s 2017 beryllium rule lowered the PEL to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In addition to saving lives and preventing illness, OSHA projects the final rule will save the U.S. economy about $561 million each year.
When workers inhale beryllium dust, they risk contracting lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such CBD of the lungs, even when they inhale very low levels of the toxic metal as dust.
Developing CBD is severely life altering. In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity profiled Bruce Revers, a retired machinist and CBD patient living with the devastating effects of beryllium exposure. Doctors diagnosed Mr. Revers with CBD in 2009 after years of exposure to beryllium in the workplace. He reported that breathing is so difficult that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle to complete. Even though Mr. Revers wore a respirator in the factory where he worked, he still contracted CBD because the standards for allowable exposure were still much too high to be safe for workers in these industries.
What happened to Mr. Revers is inexcusable, but also preventable. OSHA estimates the new beryllium rule will save 94 lives and prevent 46 new cases of CBD each year.
The beryllium rule is one of dozens of forthcoming protections caught up in the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze executive order. The rule was set to take effect on Mar. 10, but will be delayed by 60 days.
Protecting Workers from Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds: Final Rule Overview
OSHA Fact Sheet: January 2017
Workers Breathe Easier: Why We’re Celebrating OSHA’s New Beryllium Rule
Public Citizen Blog: January 10, 2017