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5 Things You Need to Know About Beryllium

This month we take a look at beryllium, which affects 35,000 workers across the United States, including LIUNA members at Department of Energy (DOE) sites and other specialized locations.

1. What Is Beryllium?

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in the telecommunications, aerospace, medical and nuclear industries. It is most commonly used as an alloy with other metals such as copper or aluminum.

2. How Are Workers Exposed to Beryllium?

Workers are exposed by inhaling beryllium dust or fumes in the air and by coming into contact with particles on nearby surfaces. Workers who may be exposed to beryllium include:

  • Foundry workers
  • Furnace tenders
  • Machine operators
  • Metal fabricators
  • Welders
  • Abrasive blasters

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that beryllium dust and fumes can linger long after work has been completed. This presents hazards for workers performing maintenance and housekeeping tasks who may never work directly with beryllium or realize they are being exposed to it.

3. What Are the Hazards of Beryllium Exposure?

A worker’s clothes are tested for beryllium particles.
Exposure to airborne beryllium can lead to an irreversible lung condition known as chronic beryllium disease (CBD). Similar to silicosis, CBD scars the lungs, causing shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and other symptoms. Workers develop CBD after first coming into contact with beryllium and becoming sensitized to the substance through an allergic reaction. About 10-14 percent of workers with high exposure to beryllium go on to develop CBD.
Heavy exposure to beryllium, even for a short period of time, can lead to acute beryllium disease, which causes symptoms similar to pneumonia or bronchitis. Beryllium exposure has also been linked to lung cancer. Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify beryllium as a carcinogen.

For more information, see this OSHA Fact Sheet on the Health Effects of Exposure to Beryllium.

4. What About OSHA’s Proposed Beryllium Rule?

In August of 2015, OSHA proposed a rule to control beryllium exposure. More details can be found in this OSHA Fact Sheet, but here are the key points:

  • The proposed rule would lower beryllium’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) from two micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) over an eight-hour period to 0.2 µg/m3. Both of these concentrations are too small to be viewed by the naked eye.
  • Similar to OSHA’s proposed rulemaking on crystalline silica, this rule would require employers to measure worker exposure, limit access to high-exposure areas, implement effective control methods, conduct medical surveillance for workers with high exposures and train workers about the hazards and how to limit exposures.
  • The proposed rule does not include the construction industry (though OSHA has asked for comments on whether it should). OSHA is accepting comments until November 5th, 2015.

OSHA’s proposed rule also would not cover beryllium exposures on DOE sites. These exposures are covered under the DOE’s separate Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program.

5. What Can Employers Do About Beryllium?

Beryllium hazards on the worksite should be mitigated using the hierarchy of controls. The following methods are recommended to control occupational exposure to beryllium and should be adopted in this order:

  • Elimination or substitution. Removing beryllium from the production process entirely is the best option, if possible.
  • Engineering controls. Using beryllium pellets instead of powder and enclosing processes to separate workers from beryllium are both viable options. The use of local exhaust ventilation to pull dust and fume from work areas is also highly recommended.
  • Administrative controls. Good housekeeping methods include using HEPA vacuums to clean the floor and equipment (never dry sweep or use compressed air) and ensuring proper material storage. Workers should also have access to changing areas and washrooms to ensure contaminated work clothes are left at work so they can’t be taken home to cause hazards for family and friends.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE). Used in addition to other methods, proper PPE for beryllium work includes the use of air-purifying respirators equipped with 100-series filters (N, P or R type) or powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) with HEPA filters. Protective clothing should prevent contact with the skin and be changed daily or if it becomes wet. Goggles or safety glasses should be worn and eyewash stations should be provided in case dust or other particles get into the eyes.

For more information on the hazards surrounding beryllium or how to control it on your jobsite, contact the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

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