OSHA Lowers Permissible Exposure Limits for Beryllium

By Mike Howie


On January 6, 2017, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new standard for beryllium exposure, reducing the permissible exposure limit by 90 percent to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over eight hours. The agency also established a short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over 15 minutes.

Initially taking effect on March 10, 2017, the new rule will roll out over three years: employers have one year to implement most of the provisions, two years to provide required change rooms and showers, and three years to implement engineering controls. Where such controls are not feasible, or where there is the potential for skin exposure, employers must provide respirators and personal protective equipment for their workers, as well as training on the limitations and proper selection, fitting, and use of the equipment. Employers will also be required to provide medical exams to monitor exposed workers and medical removal protection benefits for workers who have a beryllium-related disease.

Essential, but Dangerous

Classified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a strategic and critical material, beryllium, is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, making it popular in the aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunications, medical and defense industries. However, it is highly toxic as a dust, mist or fume, and can cause skin irritation and lung damage. The metal contributes to chronic beryllium disease, lung cancer and a number of sudden onset respiratory ailments through both inhalation and skin exposure, and once it enters the human body it cannot be removed.

Under the new rule, employers will be required to teach their employees about the health hazards of airborne exposure to and dermal contact with beryllium, and instruct workers on personal hygiene practices and the other measures they can take to protect themselves. When the new standards are fully in place, OSHA estimates that 94 deaths and 46 serious illnesses will be prevented annually among the estimated 62,000 people who work with beryllium, particularly those in foundry and smelting operations, fabricating, machining, beryllium metal and alloy grinding, beryllium oxide ceramics manufacturing and dental labs. 

An Overdue Step

The standard for beryllium exposure was originally established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 before being adopted by OSHA, and was last updated in 1971. OSHA began seeking public comment to revise the rule in 2002, but the effort took on greater urgency in 2012 when Materion Brush Inc., one of the primary manufacturers of beryllium in the U.S., teamed with the United Steelworkers union to address the need for change. OSHA proposed the revised rule in 2015, and then gathered feedback to further refine it before issuing the final rule this year.

Many critics, including some inside OSHA, have expressed frustration about the length of time it took to update a standard based on decades-old studies. The agency even acknowledged this in its announcement of the new rule, which is expected to help protect the health of tens of thousands of workers. “Today we take a long overdue step,” said Dr. David Michaels, OSHA assistant secretary of labor. “OSHA’s new standard is based on a strong foundation of science and consensus on the need for action, including peer-reviewed scientific evidence, a model standard developed by industry and labor, current consensus standards and extensive public outreach.”