The Department of Energy (DOE) announced Wednesday that is has put in place the strongest worker protection program in the world to prevent lung disease associated with exposure to beryllium.
Under the program, all DOE sites with potential beryllium exposure to workers will be required to implement stricter controls to minimize that exposure and provide for early detection of disease.
"We worked aggressively to get this rule done very quickly because we want to provide strong protection for the workers who may be exposed to beryllium as the department dismantles and decommissions the facilities of the nuclear weapons complex," said Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.
"The new rule establishes the Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program across the department. It is set to take effect on Jan. 7, 2000.
Contractors at DOE sites with potential worker exposure to beryllium are required to submit a detailed plan to meet the rule's requirements within 90 days of the January start date. All sites must be in full compliance with the new rule within two years.
The rule is intended to prevent future cases of disease by minimizing the number of current workers who work with beryllium, minimizing levels of exposure and promoting early detection of disease through careful and comprehensive medical surveillance.
The final rule sets out an "action level" that will trigger mandatory worker protection measures at 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air. This requirement is stricter than the current exposure standard of 2 micrograms or the previously proposed action level of 0.5 micrograms.
At this level, worker protection measures include:
- Required use of respirators,
- Increased workplace monitoring,
- Formal programs to minimize worker exposure,
- Isolating and restricting access to areas with beryllium; and
- Enhanced worker training and worker counseling and support.
Beryllium is a metal that has been used in many nuclear applications by the DOE and its predecessor agencies over the past 50 years.
Inhaling beryllium dust or particles can cause Chronic Beryllium Disease, a recurrent, often disabling and sometimes fatal lung condition. It can also cause beryllium sensitization, where the worker' s immune system becomes allergic to the presence of beryllium in the body. Symptoms of the disease and disability from the disease may not appear for 10 years or more after exposure.
An estimate 1,600 current workers may be exposed to beryllium at Energy Department sites. To date, DOE screening programs have identified 146 cases of Chronic Beryllium Disease among current and former workers.
In addition to the rulemaking, Richardson recently proposed legislation to establish a beryllium compensation program for DOE contractor workers who have already become sick with beryllium disease.
Under the proposal, eligible workers would receive reimbursement for medical costs associated with the illness, disability benefits for lost wages and, where needed, job retraining assistance.
Alternatively, workers with Chronic Beryllium Disease would have the option of receiving a single lump-sum benefit of $100,000.
For more information on beryllium disease and a copy of the rule, visit the DOE Beryllium Home Page at www.eh.doe.gov/portal