OSHA unveils new proposals on beryllium exposure

Proper equipment can help limit beryllium exposure.

Proper equipment can help limit beryllium exposure.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled a new proposal for workplace exposure to beryllium poisoning on Aug. 7. The proposal will take comments until early November. According to the safety section of Business and Labor Resources, the proposal had been a long time coming.

What is the proposal?
Francis Citera is the co-chair of products liability at the law firm, Greenberg Traurig. He wrote an article for The National Law Review, stating OSHA currently permits beryllium exposure to 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This total is over the course of 8 hours, a normal work day for many employees. The proposal would limit exposure to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 1/10 of the current amount allowed.

"The proposal would limit exposure to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter."

What is beryllium?
Of course, these proposals don't mean much without knowing what beryllium is. According to Live Science contributing writer Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, beryllium is one of the lightest metals currently in use. Despite its small weight, the metal is stronger than steel and has many applications. The Beryllium Science and Technology Association said the metal is commonly found in computers, cell phones, telecommunications and infrastructure equipment. It is even used in the construction of aircraft and missiles. Nuclear reactors also utilize the metal as a reflector or moderator.

Despite the wide range of use, beryllium is highly toxic. The International Agency for Research on Cancer noted people who are exposed daily to this metal have a higher chance of developing lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease, which causes scarring of the lungs. Workers and employers have to abide by strict regulations as a result. The metal is so important in some areas, due to its use in the construction of many objects. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense classified it as a strategic and critical material.

Workplace standards
OSHA estimated approximately 35,000 workers U.S. workers may be exposed to beryllium at 4,088 locations. These workers belong to different industries due to the metal's use in many fields, as even dental technicians can potentially be exposed.

Much of the exposure can come from dust, and due to the many industries beryllium is utilized in, OSHA has varying safety recommendations that are industry specific. For instance, workers and employers in the construction sector should abide by OSHA's ventilation regulations for the construction industry.

To help protect workers, employers may want to consider supplying fixed air breathing systems. These air systems can be customized to offer workers full protection and Grade D breathable air while working with, or in the vicinity of, beryllium. Protective clothing, such as boot covers and goggles, can further protect workers from beryllium dust particles.

Workplaces have to be cautious when handling the metal, and may even want to consider ending the usage of it. Upper management and administrators should ensure their training programs are updated with the latest information about beryllium, as well as good housekeeping and sanitation practices.

OSHA's new proposals regarding beryllium come at a time when the agency realizes current regulations are outdated. Due to its toxic nature, workers shouldn't be exposed to high amounts of the metal for an extended period of time.