New research on the risks of exposure to beryllium has provoked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to warn that existing exposure limits may not protect workers from contracting chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a disabling and often fatal lung disease for which there is no cure.
"In light of this new information, our current permissible exposure limits (PEL) for beryllium in the workplace now appear to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease," OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said.
Jeffress also announced the agency is releasing, via the Internet, a Hazard Information Bulletin alerting workers and their employers to potential health hazards of exposure to even low amounts of beryllium. The bulletin recommends that employers use engineering controls, work practices and personal protective equipment to limit beryllium exposure.
OSHA also suggests employers consider sending beryllium exposed employees to a physician or a health care worker for an examination. The bulletin can be obtained from the agency's Web site at www.osha-slc.gov/dts/hib/hib_data/hib19990902.html.
Beryllium is a metal found in nature and has been used since the 1940s in the production of atomic weapons. For years, many federal contract workers exposed to beryllium while constructing nuclear weapons were denied compensation by the federal government.
In July, the Department of Energy (DOE) abandoned its long-standing opposition to most worker health claims and announced legislation that would compensate DOE contract employees who are ill from work they did constructing nuclear weapons. In his recent statement, Jeffress also noted that DOE has proposed a revision to its beryllium regulation for DOE sites, and he promised to review the issue when DOE acts.
Today, beryllium has a variety of applications beyond nuclear arms production. The metal is used in such fields as metal working, ceramic manufacturing, electronics, dental alloys and laboratory research.
According to OSHA, researchers have learned that even brief exposures to low levels of beryllium dust, fumes, metal, metal oxides, ceramics or salts can result in CBD, lung cancer or skin disease.
OSHA says it is unsafe for workers to be exposed to more than two micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air for an eight-hour, time-weighted average, or to more than five micrograms per cubic meter of air for more than 30 minutes. Two micrograms per cubic meter is roughly equivalent to a marble-sized piece of material that is crushed and dispersed into a volume of a square mile that is 6 feet high.
While OSHA and DOE appear ready to cut PEL for beryllium, it is not clear by how much. If the recent action of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) is any indication, the current beryllium PEL could be too high by a factor of 10. ACGIH has announced it intends to slash its recommended exposure limits from 2 micrograms to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight hour work shift.