Used in aviation, consumer electronics, spacecraft, X-Ray equipment, and more; beryllium, its alloys, and its oxides have long been considered versatile and important. This metal, however, is also a workplace hazard to those workers who come in contact with it.
Knowing the hazards, Materion, the country’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, and the United Steelworkers in 2012 approached OSHA together to suggest an updated standard.
The proposed updates to the standard, originally adopted in 1971 by OSHA from one set in 1948 by Atomic Energy Commission, seek to reduce the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter per eight hours to 0.2 micrograms per eight hours—a drop by 90%.
OSHA estimates the rule annually could prevent 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses (chronic beryllium disease, lung disease) from beryllium, the majority of which occur in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing and dental lab work.
What is Beryllium?
Beryllium (Be) is a lightweight naturally occurring metal used in industrial processes in many different forms, such as pure metal, metal alloys, oxides, or salts.
Beryllium is used industrially in three forms:
- Pure metal,
- Beryllium oxide
- Alloyed with copper, aluminum, magnesium, or nickel
Beryllium oxide (called beryllia) is known for its high heat capacity and is an important component of certain sensitive electronic equipment. Beryllium alloys are classified into two types:
- High beryllium content (up to 30% beryllium)
- Low beryllium content (2 – 3% beryllium).
Copper-beryllium alloy is commonly used to make bushings, bearings, and springs.
Who is Exposed to Beryllium?
As beryllium has a wide variety of uses, the roughly 35,000 workers in the United States exposed to beryllium in a plethora of ways.
Occupations with potential exposure to beryllium include:
- Primary Beryllium Production Workers
- Workers Processing Beryllium Metal/Alloys/Composites
- Foundry Workers
- Furnace Tenders
- Machine Operators
- Metal Fabricators
- Dental Technicians
- Secondary smelting and refining (recycling electronic and computer parts, metals)
- Abrasive Blasters (slags): Certain types of slags may contain trace amounts of arsenic and beryllium.
How Are Workers Exposed to Beryllium?
Exposure to beryllium occurs through:
- Breathing or ingesting airborne beryllium dust, mist, or in other forms during activities including machining or grinding
- Breathing fumes from heating metal containing beryllium or other beryllium compounds at high temperatures
- Skin contact with beryllium-laden dust settled on surfaces or in liquids containing beryllium
Health Effects of Beryllium Exposure
The most common adverse health effects associated with overexposure to beryllium in the workplace include: beryllium sensitization, chronic beryllium disease (CBD), and lung cancer. Acute Beryllium Disease (ABD) is extremely rare in the workplace today due to more stringent exposure controls implemented following occupational and environmental standards set in the 1970.
- Beryllium Sensitization: Beryllium sensitization is the activation of the immune system to react to beryllium exposure such that subsequent exposure to beryllium can progress to serious lung disease. Beryllium sensitization can result from inhalation or skin exposure to beryllium and is an essential step for development of CBD.
- Chronic Beryllium Disease: CBD is a chronic granulomatous lung disease caused by inhaling airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized to beryllium. The common symptoms of CBD are shortness of breath, unexplained coughing, fatigue, weight loss, fever, and night sweats. CBD can result from inhalation exposure to beryllium at levels below the current OSHA PEL (2 μg/m3). Progression of CBD can vary among individuals.
- Lung cancer: Occupational exposure to beryllium is known to cause lung cancer in humans. Based on numerous studies in occupational settings, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies beryllium in Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) lists beryllium as a known human carcinogen.
- Acute Beryllium Disease (ABD): Acute beryllium disease (ABD) is a rapid onset form of chemical pneumonia that results from breathing high airborne concentrations of beryllium. ABD is generally associated with exposure to beryllium levels at or above 100 μg/m3and may be fatal in 10 percent of cases. ABD is extremely rare in the workplace today due to more stringent exposure controls implemented following occupational and environmental standards set in the 1970s.
There is no cure for CBD. Treatment for CBD Symptoms can vary for each patient, depending on the severity of the disease, and may include corticosteroids, oxygen, and other means to ease symptoms or slow the disease progression.
Proposed Updates to Beryllium Rule
The proposed changes in the rule, mentioned earlier, will reduce the permissible exposure limit from 2.0 micrograms to 0.2 micrograms.
Workers in general industry would be protected under a new PEL of 0.2 micrograms of respirable beryllium per cubic meter of air (µg/m3 ), averaged over 8 hours.
The proposed rule also includes additional important provisions, such as requirements for:
- Measuring workers’ beryllium exposure,
- Limiting workers’ access to areas where beryllium exposures are above the PEL
- Implementing effective control methods for reducing exposures,
- Medical surveillance, including medical exams, for workers with high beryllium exposures,
- Medical removal protections,
- Training workers about beryllium-related hazards and how to limit exposure, and
- Keeping records of workers’ beryllium exposure and medical exams.
Once the full effects of the rule are realized, the proposed rule is expected to prevent nearly 100 fatalities annually from chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer. The proposed rule is estimated to average $575.8 million in annual benefits for the next 60 years. The proposed rule is expected to cost $37.6 million annually for workplaces covered by the rule.
Commenting is open until November 11, 2015, and can be completed on the Federal Register.
For more information on beryllium exposure in the workplace, see:
- OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Beryllium
- Health Effects of Beryllium
- OSHA Fact Sheet: Beryllium
- OSHA InfoSheet: Beryllium in the Workplace
- NIOSH Beryllium Sensitization Fact Sheet
- Los Alamos National Laboratory: Beryllium Worker Safety
For more information on how to reduce exposure to workplace hazards as part of a complete safety management system, contact Optimum Safety Management.