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New Beryllium Rule Increases Workplace Protections

More stringent measures are now being put in place to help prevent lung diseases in construction laborers who are exposed to coal slag during abrasive blasting operations.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

These men and women are among the 62,000 American workers who stand to benefit from a new OSHA rule that drastically lowers the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of beryllium and lays down specific measures employers must put in place. The rule was originally scheduled to go into effect this month, but OSHA has now moved it to May.

“LIUNA members perform abrasive blasting during bridge maintenance, demolition and deconstruction projects,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “With this new rule, LIUNA signatory contractors will have the tools and guidance necessary to ensure worker health and safety when beryllium is present on the job.”

Beryllium in the Workplace

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal with a high melting point and excellent thermal stability, conductivity, reflectivity and transparency that makes it essential in the aerospace, defense, medical, telecommunications and nuclear industries.

While the majority of workplace exposures to beryllium occur in these fields, construction workers can be exposed during tasks that involve abrasive blasting.

Key Provisions of the Standard

  • Reduces the PEL from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over eight hours.
  • Establishes a new short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute sampling period.
  • Requires employers to:
  • Use engineering and work practice controls (such as ventilation or enclosure) to limit worker exposure
  • Provide respirators when controls cannot reduce exposure below the PEL
  • Limit worker access to high-exposure areas
  • Develop a written exposure control plan
  • Offer medical exams to monitor exposed workers and provide medical removal protection benefits to workers with a beryllium-related disease
  • Train workers on potential health hazards, the use of PPE, appropriate personal hygiene practices and the other aspects of the standard listed above

Why Are Construction Workers at Risk?

Abrasive blasting, a high-velocity stream of various gritty materials, is used when preparing a surface for paint or some other type of coating. When the surface is metal and rust needs to be removed, the gritty material is often coal slag, a glassy, granularized byproduct of burned coal. Coal slag contains traces of beryllium.

When controls are not in place, construction workers are exposed to beryllium when they inhale the dust caused by coal slag blasting against a metal surface like a steel bridge truss. Without access to changing areas and washrooms, construction workers can also unknowingly bring the dust into their homes and expose their families.

When fully in effect, OSHA estimates the rule will save 94 lives from lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses linked to beryllium exposure and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) every year. CBD causes permanent scarring of the lung tissue. Over time, workers with CBD can experience:

  • Shortness of breath with physical activity
  • Dry cough that will not go away
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Chest and joint pain
  • Loss of appetite

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division can provide additional guidance for protecting workers from beryllium and other hazardous materials. This includes site visits and a review of an employer’s safety and health program. The Fund’s online Site Safety and Health Program allows signatory contractors to create individual safety and health programs customized for their specific needs. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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