FAQ on New OSHA Beryllium Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a final rule revising the standards for occupational exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds in the construction and shipyards industries.

Below for your reference are frequently asked questions on the new rule and additional resources for more information.

Why is OSHA issuing a new beryllium rule?
OSHA’s previous permissible exposure limits (PELs) for beryllium are outdated and inadequate for protecting worker health. The previous PELs were based on older studies that do not reflect more recent scientific evidence showing that low-level exposures to beryllium can cause serious lung disease. In the 45 years since the previous PELs were established, the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have all identified beryllium as a human carcinogen. The final rule is expected to reduce the risk of disease among beryllium-exposed workers.

When must employers comply with the standard for construction and shipyards?
Employers were originally required to comply by May 11, 2018, but OSHA extended the compliance date for the ancillary provisions of the construction and shipyards standards to September 30, 2020.

What is beryllium?
Beryllium is a lightweight but extremely strong metal used in the aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunications, medical, and defense industries. Beryllium-copper alloys are widely used because of their electrical and thermal conductivity, hardness, and good corrosion resistance. Beryllium oxide is used to make ceramics for electronics and other electrical equipment because of its heat conductivity, high strength and hardness, and good electrical insulation. Metal slags and fly ash (a byproduct of coal-fired power plants) may also contain trace amounts of beryllium (considerably <0.1% by weight).

How will the beryllium rule protect workers’ health?
The new rule lowers the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) and requires that employers use feasible engineering controls – such as ventilation along with work practice controls – to reduce workers’ inhalation exposure to beryllium. Research indicates that inhalation exposure to airborne beryllium particulate is necessary for chronic beryllium disease (CBD) to develop in workers. Once the full effects of the rule are realized, OSHA expects it to prevent 90 deaths from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of CBD each year.

NIOSH studies have shown that worker protection models such as Materion’s beryllium worker protection model (BWPM) have reduced risks of beryllium-related diseases for Materion’s facilities. 

How can exposure to beryllium affect workers’ health?
Inhaling airborne beryllium can cause a lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD). Occupational exposure to beryllium has also been linked to lung cancer. However, CBD is the primary health risk for beryllium workers. In the preamble, OSHA states that there is greater uncertainty regarding the lung cancer risk estimates than for the CBD risk estimates. Exposure to beryllium can also lead to sensitization – an allergic-type response. Not all workers will develop sensitivity to beryllium. In most cases, a worker may be sensitized but there are no health symptom; the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that between 1 to 10 percent of workers may become sensitized.   Workers who become sanitized may later develop CBD.  While most commonly associated with diseases of the lungs, beryllium may also affect such organs as the liver, kidneys, heart, nervous system, and the lymphatic system.  Direct contact with beryllium fumes or dusts may injure the exposed areas of the body, such as the eyes or the skin. Skin sensitization may also occur.

Who is at risk from exposure to beryllium?
Around 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium on the job in various industries.

This includes workers in the construction and shipyard industries, abrasive blasters and support personnel who may be exposed to beryllium from slags. In these operations, beryllium exposure may occur as a result of high dust levels generated despite the low beryllium content of the material.

Why can’t beryllium workers just wear respirators all the time?
Respirators are not as protective as engineering controls, and they aren’t always as practical either. Unless respirators are selected for each worker, individually fitted, periodically refitted, and regularly maintained, and unless filters and other parts are replaced as necessary, workers will not be protected from beryllium exposure. In many cases, workers using only respirators would also have to wear more extensive and expensive protection (such as supplied air respirators). Even when respirators are selected, fitted, and maintained correctly, they must be worn consistently and correctly by workers to be effective. Respirators can also be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather, and cannot be used by some workers.

When is an employer required to provide a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR)?
The employer must provide a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) instead of a negative pressure respirator when all of the following are met: (1) respiratory protection is required by the beryllium standard; (2) an employee entitled to such respiratory protection requests a PAPR; and (3) the PAPR provides adequate protection to the employee.

What are the new permissible exposure limits (PELs)?
OSHA’s new PELs are 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), as an 8-hour time-weighted average, and 2.0 μg/m3 as determined over a sampling period of 15 minutes. The PELs are the same for all employers covered by the standards (general industry, construction, and shipyards). The new 8-hour TWA PEL represents a ten-fold decrease from the previous PEL.

OSHA established a PEL of 0.2 μg/m3 because the agency determined that occupational exposure to beryllium at the previous PELs resulted in a significant risk of developing CBD or dying from CBD or lung cancer, and that compliance with a 0.2 μg/m3 PEL would substantially reduce that risk.

OSHA requires that employers assess the airborne exposure of each employee who is or may reasonably be expected to be exposed to airborne beryllium with either the performance option or the scheduled monitoring option.

Employers must notify workers of assessment results within 15 working days after the assessments completion individually in writing or post the results in an appropriate location that is accessible to each of the affected workers.

Are the air sampling methods used to detect and measure beryllium reliable?
Yes, worker exposures to beryllium at the new PEL, STEL, and action level can be reliably measured using existing NIOSH sampling and analytical methods.

OSHA has carefully reviewed the available scientific literature and expert testimony contained in the rulemaking record on the ability of modern sampling and analytical methods to reliably measure beryllium at the new PEL, STEL, and action level.

OSHA and NIOSH methods for analyzing beryllium are able to measure concentrations at the new PEL and action level with acceptable precision.

How can beryllium exposures be controlled to keep exposures at or below the new PEL?
Employers must use engineering and work practice controls as the primary way keep exposures at or below the PEL.

Engineering controls include using process isolation, ventilated enclosures, or local exhaust ventilation to keep beryllium from being dispersed throughout a work area.

Examples of work practices to control beryllium exposures include keeping surfaces clean by using a HEPA-filtered vacuum or by wetting down dust before sweeping it up. See the How does OSHA define ‘as free as practicable’ section on the OSHA FAQ site for further information.

If engineering and work practice controls cannot keep exposures at or below the PEL, employers must provide respiratory protection to affected employees and follow requirements of the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard 29 CFR 1926.103/29CFR 1910.134 including medical clearance, training, fit testing selection, inspection, maintenance and maintaining a written respiratory protection program.

Additional protections under the standard
Other aspects of the standard include a worker’s right to observe monitoring procedures, employer requirements to develop and implement a written exposure control plan and designate a competent person when worker airborne beryllium exposures are, or can reasonably be expected to be, at levels above the TWA PEL or STEL.  Additionally, some workers may need to be enrolled in a medical surveillance program if exposures make it necessary to do so as well as receive training on certain aspects of the standard by the time of initial work assignment.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades is committed to working with our employers to maintain a safe job site for our members.

Learn more about the new Beryllium standard and how it affects the construction and shipyard industries on this OSHA WEBSITE.

Additional Resources:

OSHA’s Rulemaking to Protect Workers from Beryllium Exposure
OSHA LAW BLOG: OSHA Finalizes Standard on Beryllium for General Industry
OSHA Standards: Toxic and Hazardous Substances (Beryllium)

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