The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed dramatic changes to its regulations regarding exposure to beryllium, which can cause fatal lung diseases. Currently, OSHA permits 2.0 µg of beryllium per cubic meter of air per 8 hours. The agency wants to reduce that exposure to 0.2 µg per cubic meter of air per 8 hours.
“This proposal will save lives and help thousands of workers stay healthy and be more productive on the job,” said US Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.
According to OSHA, about 35,000 workers are exposed to beryllium in their workplaces. Along with the reduced exposure, the new rule would require additional protections such as personal protective equipment, medical exams, and other medical surveillance and training. These regulations could prevent 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses each year, OSHA says.
Dental materials, including some crowns and bridges, use alloys that contain beryllium to improve castability and bond strength. The process of melting, grinding, polishing, and finishing certain dental materials can produce particles, fumes, mists, and solutions that contain beryllium, which may be harmful depending on the intensity, duration, frequency, and route of exposure.
Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that sensitizes the individual to the element. Subsequent exposure can lead to chronic beryllium disease (CBD), which includes shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, fever, and night sweats. There is no cure for CBD. Lung cancer and acute beryllium disease, a rapid onset form of chemical pneumonia, also are potential consequences of sensitization.
The ADA recommends additions to OSHA’s proposed changes. First, the organization asked OSHA to fully exempt employers who use but do not process articles containing beryllium from all requirements. Second, the ADA asked to exempt employers with fewer than 10 employees from including employee Social Security numbers in any recordkeeping required under the proposed standard.
According to the National Association of Dental Laboratories, the use of beryllium alloys in dental labs has fallen to very low levels. Also, the ADA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health both have promulgated standard practices to prevent unsafe exposure to beryllium and beryllium-containing compounds.
Most current worker exposures to beryllium occur in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing, and dental lab work. The proposed rule would not cover some workers exposed to trace amounts in raw materials. OSHA invites the public to read the proposed rules and submit written comments.