Trump Administration Delays Protections for Construction and Shipyard Workers, Weakens Beryllium Rule

June 26, 2017 | 2:09 pm
Workers at Newport News shipyard in Virginia install new propellers. Photo: US Navy/Wikimedia
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

More bad news for workers coming from the Trump administration. Last Friday (June 23), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced its proposal to “modify” (read “weaken”) protections for workers exposed to beryllium in construction and shipyards.

Beryllium is a very dangerous material. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease, a devastating illness. There’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease.

While it leaves in place the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium (0.2ug/m3), OSHA now proposes to eliminate the “ancillary provisions” of the rule that would extend certain protections to construction and shipyard workers. Protections like exposure monitoring, a written exposure control plan, personal protective equipment, and medical surveillance. These “ancillary provisions” are actually basic public health protections for workers dealing with a really hazardous material.

An unwarranted delay

In March, I wrote and bemoaned OSHA’s two-month delay in implementing its new protective standards for workers exposed to beryllium—an unwarranted delay following decades of work and solid scientific evidence. A delay in implementing standards that lowered the PEL and also, importantly, extended needed protections to workers in shipyards and construction. A delay that guaranteed two additional months of serious, ongoing risk to exposed workers.

That two months will now stretch for who knows how long into the future for shipyard and construction workers. In its press release last Friday, OSHA stated that “Representatives of the shipyards and construction industries, as well as members of Congress, raised concerns that they had not had a meaningful opportunity to comment on the application of the rule to their industries when the rule was developed in 2015-16.” Seriously. Even though in a lengthy (very lengthy) rule-making process, OSHA specifically solicited stakeholder comments on whether its final beryllium rule should extend protections to workers in these two industries. Seems like enough time, no?

The latest blow to worker and public health protections

The OSHA press release also noted that “it has information suggesting that requiring the ancillary provisions broadly may not improve worker protection…” OSHA didn’t cite any evidence, except perhaps mentioning the “concern” of the regulated industry.

Public health professionals (and workers) would beg to differ on the value of measuring exposure levels, requiring personal protective equipment, and providing medical surveillance of exposed workers.

This new proposal is just the latest blow to worker and public health protections coming out of the Trump administration—see, for example, here,  here, and here. The proposal is scheduled to be published tomorrow in the Federal Register, which will open the public comment period.

Let’s use the opportunity to remind OSHA—and to send a message to all of our regulatory agencies—that their FIRST priority is protect the health, safety, and security of the American people.  Private interests must not trump the public interest.