Photo: OSHA Urged to Adopt Proposed Beryllium Standard

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aims to lower the eight hour permissible limit for beryllium to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air from the current limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter, a change that would save approximately 100 lives and prevent 50 serious illnesses each year, according to OSHA.

The ruling would apply to an estimated 35,000 general industry workers exposed at their workplace and benefit the families of workers who may come in contact with contaminated dust on work clothing and in vehicles.

In November 2015, the American Thoracic Society sent an official statement to OSHA urging them to act quickly on the new ruling. The statement came from an ATS review of the existing scientific literature by an international committee of 13 experts led by chair John Balmes, director of COEH. Published in November 2014 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, lead author Balmes and colleagues assessed the latest evidence on the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and beryllium sensitization (BeS), the precursor to CBD, and recommended protocols for diagnosis and management plus “surveillance in workplaces that use beryllium-containing materials to identify individuals with BeS and at-risk groups of workers, which can help prioritize efforts to reduce inhalational and dermal exposures.”

Beryllium is a naturally occurring element added to aluminum, iron, metal, and copper during industrial processes. A known carcinogen, beryllium is commonly used in the manufacture of computers, aerospace, and defense equipment. Beryllium exposure occurs through dermal contact and the inhalation of airborne dust and fumes in the workplace. Exposure can lead to CBD, a potentially life-threatening lung disease.

Symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, cough, and shortness of breath can appear immediately after exposure or months or even years later. OSHA confirms workers can develop CBD from exposure to airborne beryllium at levels below the OSHA permissible limit of 2 µg/m3 adopted 40 years ago in 1971.

Industrial operations known to process beryllium materials in the United States offer workplace protection and work with NIOSH to reduce exposures, explains Balmes, but the hazards of beryllium are not widely published to downstream industries. Recyclers that disassemble and repurpose technology components and employees in machine shops that grind or polish motor vehicle or construction parts containing beryllium materials may not realize the risks posed by contaminated dust and fumes.

Balmes sees the downstream workers that have been sensitized to beryllium at the UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) Clinic at San Francisco General. In addition, the OEM Program has sent medical students for clinical placements related to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s beryllium disease prevention program and surveillance activities, examples of how Balmes and COEH colleagues are working to prioritize efforts to prevent beryllium exposure in the workplace and raise awareness in the field of medicine.

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