The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies beryllium and beryllium compounds as carcinogenic to humans, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies inhaled beryllium as a possible carcinogen. Despite its toxicity, beryllium is an important material in the aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunication, energy, medical and defense industries due to its physical properties, such as its strength-to-weight ratio. In the construction (and maritime) industries, worker exposure to respirable beryllium primarily occurs when slags that contain trace amounts of beryllium (<0.1 percent weight) are used for abrasive blast cleaning. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates approximately 11,500 construction and shipyard workers who may conduct abrasive blast cleaning with slags may be exposed to trace amounts of beryllium. Abrasive blast cleaning typically produces a large amount of dust, some of which may contain small (respirable) beryllium particles. Inhaling beryllium may lead to beryllium sensitization which ultimately puts an individual at risk for developing varying diseases affecting the lungs, including chronic beryllium disease (CBD), acute beryllium disease, and lung cancer.
Occupational Exposure to Beryllium; Final Rule (29 CFR Parts 1910, 1915 and 1926)
According to OSHA, despite the known health dangers related to beryllium exposure, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) remained outdated and ineffective for preventing beryllium-related diseases for decades. After years of science supporting the need for an updated beryllium standard, on January 9th, 2017, OSHA issued a final rule that established greater protection for workers exposed to beryllium in general industry (1910.1024), construction (1926.1124) and shipyards (1915.1024).
The rule applies when materials being used contain greater than 0.1 percent beryllium by weight. Employers using materials with a lesser beryllium content are exempt only where the employer has objective data demonstrating that employee exposure to airborne beryllium will remain below the action level under any foreseeable conditions. Employers can use objective data, based on industry-wide surveys or calculations based on the beryllium content in dust, that represent typical exposures during the employers’ operations, to determine if they are covered under the standard. The data must reflect workplace conditions closely resembling or with a higher airborne exposure potential than the processes, types of material, control methods, work practices, and environmental conditions in the employer’s current operations.
Key Provisions in the Beryllium Standard
There are seven key provisions in the standard:
- The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium was reduced to 0.2 microgram per cubic meter of air, averaged over 8-hours.
- The action level for beryllium was reduced to 0.1 microgram per cubic meter of air, averaged over 8-hours.
- It established a new short-term exposure limit (STEL) for beryllium of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over a 15-minute sampling period.
- It requires employers to use engineering and work practice controls (such as ventilation or enclosure); limit worker access to high-exposure areas; provide respiratory protection where exposures are, or can be reasonably be expected to be, at or above the action level.
- The standard requires provisions for respiratory protection and implementation of a written exposure control plan whenever employees are, or can reasonably be expected to be, exposed to airborne beryllium at levels above the TWA PEL or STEL.
- The employer must train each employee on beryllium hazards who has, or can reasonably be expected to have, airborne exposure to or dermal contact with beryllium.
- It requires employers to make medical surveillance available at no cost to the employee to monitor exposed workers identified with a beryllium-related disease or who are reasonably expected to be exposed at or above the action level for more than 30 days per year.
All three standards took effect May 20, 2017 but employers have until March 12, 2018 to comply with most provisions of the rule.
Proposed Modifications to the Beryllium Rule:
On June 23, 2017, OSHA announced its proposal to revoke certain provisions of the beryllium rule in the construction and maritime industries. However, the standard would maintain the requirements for exposure limits. OSHA estimates that revoking the provisions below (while retaining the lower PEL and STEL for construction and shipyards) would yield a total annualized cost savings of $10.2 million across these industries.
The following provisions are subject to revocation:
- Exposure assessment
- Methods for controlling exposure
- Respiratory protection equipment
- Personal protective equipment and exposure
- Medical surveillance
- Hazard communication
The proposed modifications come supported by evidence that beryllium exposure in the construction and maritime industries primarily results from abrasive blast cleaning and welding (specifically in maritime). Therefore, the proposed changes stem from the fact that there are regulations currently in place to address particulate exposure, similar to beryllium, in these operations. The abrasive blast cleaning industry is subject to additional OSHA rules requiring engineering and administrative controls, personal protective equipment and employee training, including:
- Ventilation standard in construction (1926.57)
- Ventilation standard in general industry for exhaust ventilation and housekeeping (1910.94(a)(4), (a)(7))
- Respiratory protection standard in general industry (1910.134)
- Hazard communication standard in general industry (1910.1200)
That is, would workers in construction and maritime workplaces be adequately protected by already-existing health and safety regulations if the above provisions in the beryllium standard were revoked?
Implications of the Revocation of Certain Provisions
Under the new beryllium standards, the employer is required to assess the exposure of each employee who is, or who is reasonably expected to be above the action level for beryllium. Aligning with the exposure assessment provision is a requirement for medical surveillance. The medical surveillance provision in the new rule includes a requirement for an employer to provide beryllium exposure-related medical surveillance to employees who meet certain criteria, including exposure above the action level of 0.1 microgram per cubic meter for 30 days a year or more, or showing symptoms of a beryllium-related disease. Employers’ costs would be saved under these revocations, but worker exposure levels to beryllium would be unknown. Although exposure assessments and medical surveillance is required under separate OSHA standards, air monitoring and medical exams in these standards would not monitor for beryllium exposure.
Abrasive Blast Cleaning Industry Response
Industry organizations such as the Abrasive Blasting Manufacturers Alliance criticized the “overreaching” beryllium standard and applauded the proposal to revoke the ancillary provisions of the construction and maritime industries. The Alliance, which represents manufacturers of coal slag, argues there is an important distinction between beryllium alloy and the mineral form of beryllium, which is found in trace amounts in abrasive. While the Alliance agrees beryllium alloys and other processed forms of beryllium have been found to lead to illness, they argue, that the Alliance is “not aware of a single documented case of beryllium sensitization or beryllium-related illness associated with coal or copper slag abrasive production among their employees, or their customers’ employees working with the products of Alliance members” (82 FR 29182). However, without a medical surveillance program in place OSHA states that such reports are not compelling evidence.
The Alliance also stresses the beryllium rule not only affects slag abrasive manufacturers but the entire abrasive industry. According to the Alliance all blast cleaning media and blast cleaned surfaces can contain trace amounts of beryllium. Therefore, due to the dramatic reduction in the beryllium PEL and action level, all blasters would need to comply with the regulations regardless of abrasive media.
Request for Comment
OSHA requested further comment on “whether existing standards covering abrasive blast cleaning in construction, abrasive blast cleaning in shipyards, and welding in shipyards provide adequate protection for workers engaged in these operations.”
Specifically, the agency was looking for “responses, supported by evidence and reason, to the following questions:”
- Would workers in construction and maritime workplaces be adequately protected by already-existing health and safety regulations if the ancillary provisions of the new beryllium rule are revoked?
- Should OSHA keep any of the provisions it has proposed to eliminate for the construction and maritime industries?
- What is the incremental benefit if OSHA keeps the medical surveillance requirements for these industries, but eliminates all other ancillary provisions?
- Should OSHA keep some of the medical surveillance provisions, and if so, which are most appropriate?
The request for comment period ended on August 28, 2017. Until a final decision is made on the proposal to revoke ancillary provisions of the construction and shipyards beryllium standards, the status of these two standards will remain in limbo.