The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is implementing a final rule aimed at stopping workers from falling ill as a result of exposure to beryllium and its compounds. Beryllium is a steel gray and hard metal with a reasonably high melting point. It’s only mined from the U.S., China, and Kazakhstan and is used for a variety of purposes, including in the manufacture of x-ray tubes and in various capacities in the defense, aerospace, and auto industries, as well as in some electronics and acoustics.
The problem is that the mineral and its compounds can be very dangerous. OSHA’s new rule contains a series of updated standards for shipyards, construction, and general industry, and the goal is to prevent lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease for workers. The rule is supposed to limit workers’ exposure, and it is expected to save an estimated 95 lives and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium diseases annually. Those benefits won’t be fully realized until the updated rules are in place for a while. The estimated net benefits of the rule – i.e., savings in medical expenses, lost time off work, and workers’ compensation payments – is $561 million a year.
It’s believed that some 62,000 American workers are exposed to this substance at work. That figure includes more than 11,500 workers in the shipyard and construction industries, which carry out certain types of blasting operations using slags that have some beryllium present. Most workers affected by the rule work in general industry. Specifically, these are mostly metal and ceramic production workers, workers in non-ferrous foundries, and workers who make beryllium alloy products.
It should be noted that there are already companies that have been following the spirit of this new rule for many years. They do this by using certain protocol and controls, such as protective gear and clothing, that reduce worker exposure to the substance. What this OSHA rule does is make those kinds of protections a formal requirement and also grant federal regulators the power to issue fines against companies that fail to protect workers from dangerous beryllium exposure.
The previous exposure limit was set four decades ago, and, as OSHA indicated in its press release on the new rule, the old standards simply didn’t do enough to protect workers, who often had to seek long-term workers’ compensation benefits for their illnesses.
OSHA began the process of updating the rule all the way back in 2002. Several investigators visited sites across the country, analyzed the danger, and formulated risk assessments, as well as addressing the possible negative impact a rule change would have on companies, particularly smaller ones. A decade later, in 2012, OSHA received a joint model, submitted by a labor union that represents workers who encounter beryllium and one of the industry’s biggest manufacturers of the product. That, the agency indicated, really lit a fire to get the standards formalized.
The rule was proposed in 2015, and it is now becoming formal after a series of public comment periods. The requirements include:
- Mandating employers to implement work practice and engineering controls so that workers have adequate ventilation, and to provide ventilators when the space itself isn’t adequate to limit exposure; and
- Employers making available medical exams to monitor workers who have been exposed and to provide medical removal protection benefits to workers who have been diagnosed with a disease related to their beryllium exposure.
The measure also limits the amount of beryllium to which a worker can be exposed in a 15-minute period and over an eight-hour time frame.
The standards take effect in March of this year, from which point companies will have one year to ensure compliance with each provision.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Final Rule to Protect Workers from Beryllium Exposure, January 2017, OSHA
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