The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a new rule dramatically lowering workplace exposure to beryllium, a strategically important material that can cause devastating lung diseases. The new standards will require employers at dental labs and other medical environments as well as in general industry and construction to take additional practical measures to protect an estimated 62,000 workers from these serious risks.
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in aerospace, defense, electronics, energy, medical, and telecommunication applications. However, it is highly toxic when materials that contain it are processed in a way that releases airborne beryllium dust, fume, or mist into the workplace air. When inhaled by workers, this is potentially damaging to their lungs. Recent evidence shows that low-level exposures to beryllium can cause serious lung disease. The new rule revises previous beryllium permissible exposure limits based on decades-old studies.
“Outdated exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from beryllium exposure. 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,” said David Michaels, PhD, MPH, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “The new limits will reduce exposures and protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.”
The final rule will reduce the 8-hour permissible exposure limit from the previous level of 2.0 µg per cubic meter to 0.2 µg per cubic meter. Above that level, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of beryllium. The rule also requires additional protections, including personal protective equipment, medical exams, other medical surveillance, and training. It further establishes a short-term exposure limit of 2.0 µg per cubic meter during a 15-minute sampling period.
OSHA estimates that, once in full effect, the rule will annually save the lives of 94 workers from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease. Workers in foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, grinding beryllium metal and alloys, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing, and dental lab work represent the majority of those at risk.
To give employers enough time to meet the requirements and put proper protections in place, the rule provides staggered compliance dates. Once the rule is effective, employers have one year to implement most of the standard’s provisions. Employers must provide the required change rooms and showers beginning 2 years after the effective date. Also, employers are required to implement the engineering controls beginning 3 years after the effective date of the standards.