Critics Say OSHA Isn't Protecting U.S. Workers From Beryllium

In the wake of recent disclosures that 10 current OSHA employees have developed a sensitization to beryllium, probably while performing inspections, some critics say the agency is failing to protect the health of private sector workers who are exposed to beryllium 40 hours a week.

According to confirmed results of the beryllium blood tests released by OSHA in March, 3.7 percent out of 271 inspectors tested are sensitive to beryllium, a widely used carcinogenic metal that can cause skin and lung disease.

"It's extraordinary how many of the inspectors who were exposed only briefly to beryllium are sensitized," commented Peter Lurie, M.D., MPH, deputy director of Public Citizen's health research group. "These inspectors pop in for a day or two, while presumably workers are exposed to similar levels 40 hours per week, every week."

Adam Finkel, Sc.D., an OSHA official who in 2000 began pushing the agency to offer inspectors beryllium blood tests, thinks OSHA should release the exposure data for all beryllium-sensitized inspectors. In the absence of this information, Finkel believes agency inspectors probably visited no more than 10 facilities. Finkel, now teaching at Princeton University after settling a legal dispute with OSHA surrounding the beryllium issue, said he does not speak for the agency.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS asked OSHA what the agency is doing to protect those who work full-time at the facilities visited by OSHA inspectors who now have beryllium sensitivity.

In a written response, an unnamed agency official stated, "it is the responsibility of the employer to protect workers." The statement explained further that OSHA has noted the risks of the metal through several health bulletins and that employers are expected to comply with OSHA's current permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium: not more than 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour time-weighted average.

"It's nutty only to say we expect employers to comply with the standard," commented Finkel. "Even if employers are complying, the sensitization numbers show the PEL is too high and not protective. We know workers are exposed to levels thousands of times higher on a cumulative basis than OSHA inspectors."

Lurie said in 2001 Public Citizen filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to compel OSHA to cut its beryllium PEL to 10 percent of what it is currently. "By statute OSHA must maintain a healthy workforce: It's clear they failed to do so for both private sector workers and for their own," he added.

Beryllium is listed on OSHA's current regulatory agenda, raising hopes the PEL will be lowered in the future.

In a March 24 letter to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who had asked about the current status of beryllium rulemaking, OSHA Acting Administrator Jonathan Snare wrote the agency, "is in the early stages of the regulatory process."

The answer satisfied neither Finkel nor Lurie.

"It means absolutely nothing for OSHA to say rulemaking is ongoing," said Lurie. "Words are not enough when issued by OSHA: Concrete action must be shown."

Beryllium first was placed on the regulatory agenda in 1975.

"It's been 30 years -- when will OSHA not be in the early stages of rulemaking?" asked Finkel.

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