Beryllium Exposure: Trump Administration Delays Protecting Workers from a Devastating Risk

March 2, 2017 | 2:18 pm
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Yesterday, President Trump’s Labor Department announced it would delay the effective date of a new standard to protect workers exposed to beryllium on the job, from March 21 to May 20. Part of the president’s regulatory freeze, the delay purports to give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) an opportunity for further review.

A regulatory freeze in and of itself is not so unusual. Other presidents have done it. But this particular delay almost makes me cry.  

Beryllium exposure:  REALLY BAD

Beryllium is a useful and versatile metal. It’s widely used in a host of industries and products—from aerospace, defense, and telecommunications to the automotive, electronic, construction, shipyard, and medical specialty industries.

It’s also a very dangerous material; the health effects of beryllium exposure have been known since the 1930s and ’40s. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease—a devastating illness that quite literally saps the breath of those who suffer from it. And, unlike having medication and a rescue inhaler for asthma control, there’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease. OSHA estimates that approximately 62,000 workers are potentially exposed to beryllium in approximately 7,300 establishments in the United States.

Regulating workplace exposure to beryllium

The first occupational exposure limit (OEL) for beryllium was established in 1949 by the Atomic Energy Commission; it was known as the “taxicab standard” in some circles as it was ostensibly crafted by a government health official and industry medical consultant in the back of a cab. The standard was set at 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air (2 µg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA).

In 1975, based on scientific studies of beryllium’s carcinogenicity, OSHA proposed cutting the permissible exposure level in half—to 1 µg/m3.  And in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—the nation’s workplace health and safety research agency—recommended cutting the OEL even further to 0.5 µg/m3.

But, as often happens in the regulatory process, the regulated industry objected and the inadequately protective standard stayed in place for another four decades—exposing workers for 40-plus years to beryllium levels that were clearly dangerous!

In 1999 and again in 2001, OSHA was petitioned by labor unions and others to issue a more stringent emergency temporary standard for worker exposure to beryllium, in recognition of the scientific and medical evidence of harm. With many intervening steps and processes (e.g., a formal Request for Information, a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel, risk assessments, and scientific reviews), OSHA  proposed and then promulgated a new standard of  0.2 µg/min January of 2017.    

In other words, after decades of work and a thorough and painstaking process, including careful analysis of technological and economic feasibility, workers exposed to beryllium finally have the science-based protection they need. The final rule estimates an annualized benefit of approximately $487 million. The benefit to the workers whose cancer or chronic lung disease is prevented is immeasurable.

And the standard also includes critical provisions for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure, personal protective equipment, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and record-keeping. (You can read an influential expose of worker beryllium exposure here.) The final rule itself provides an extensive and detailed history, background, analyses, and findings underpinning the new standard.

So, what’s the worry?

Simply that this worker protection standard is already decades overdue, and any delay—even a small one—puts more workers at risk.

I worry that worker health and safety may come in second and be trumped by clamors of over-regulation and federal agencies run amok.

I worry that even the most rigorous, science-based, and drawn out process for protecting our nation’s workers will somehow be found wanting.

And I’m fearful that this delay is a bad omen—for the fate of other public health and safety protections.

On January 30, 2017—with barely two weeks in office—President Trump issued an executive order  that federal agencies must identify for elimination two regulations for every new one they might propose.  That’s a pretty sobering and worrisome directive.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope this two-month delay is simply the by-product of what happens when a new president and administration take over. And I hope the Trump administration’s OSHA recognizes both the need and the completed process—and ensures that the new standard truly goes into effect on May 20.