Obama Administration takes next step to protect beryllium exposed workers

OSHA announced today that it is proposing a health standard to protect workers who are exposed to beryllium. Exposure to the lightweight but super strong metal causes a debilitating illness called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and lung cancer.

The proposed rule is coming about, in part, because of an effort by those who will be most affected by an OSHA beryllium regulation: the nation’s primary beryllium manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers (USW). They engaged in two years of negotiations to agree on key provisions of a regulation. In February 2012, they submitted their proposal to OSHA. The agency developed its own proposed rule, but says it gave consideration to the industry-labor agreement.

OSHA’s proposal will be published in the Federal Register on August 7, and I will be reviewing it over the coming weeks. I’m particularly interested in reading the medical surveillance and medical removal protections. What tests will be offered to detect ill effects from beryllium exposure? What special economic and/or medical protections will be offered to workers who develop sensitization to beryllium or develop CBD?

Quickly browsing through the proposed rule, I see that OSHA offers “more than two dozen regulatory alternatives.” One regulatory alternative, for example, is having the beryllium rule apply to employers in the construction and maritime industry. Currently, OSHA is proposing that it only apply in manufacturing and other general industries. Another of OSHA’s regulatory alternatives is instituting a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air (8-hour time-weighted average). Currently, OSHA is proposing a 0.2 microgram PEL. It will be interesting to see how the Obama Administration’s decision to throw dozens of options in the mix will affect the USW and Materion’s ability to hold to their negotiated agreement. (I hope they can stick together.)  Other provisions of the proposal have elements comparable to other OSHA health standards, including medical surveillance, training and a preference for engineering controls.

This OSHA proposal is a long time in the making:

  • OSHA initially proposed a beryllium standard in 1975, but the rulemaking was squelched by the Department of Defense and fierce lobbying by Brush Wellman (Materion’s precedesor.)
  • In 1999, the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) (now part of the USW) petitioned OSHA for a standard. In 2001, Public Citizen and PACE sent another rulemaking petition to OSHA.
  • In 2002, OSHA published a “Request for Information” to solicit data, input, and ideas to help OSHA develop a beryllium standard.
  • In 2007, OSHA convened a group of small business representatives to provide feedback on a draft proposed rule.
  • In 2010, OSHA’s risk assessment on occupational exposure to beryllium was subject to external peer review.
  • In February 2012, OSHA received from USW and Materion their negotiated proposal.
  • In September 2014, OSHA submitted its draft proposed rule to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. That office took 10 months to review it.

OSHA’s proposed rule on beryllium will appear in the Federal Register tomorrow. My fingers are crossed that the USW-Materion partnership will remain strong and push the Obama Administration to complete this rulemaking by next summer.

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