The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has scheduled a public hearing  to discuss the agency’s proposed rule to amend its existing exposure limits to Beryllium. Currently, OSHA’s eight-hour permissible exposure limit for Beryllium is 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air, but the new rule will change that number to .2 micrograms per cubic meter of air .  The current standard was established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, and it was adopted by OSHA in 1971.  If employees are exposed to higher levels of beryllium, employers must take steps to reduce the airborne concentration of Beryllium, and provide the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to employees.  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.

 

What is Beryllium?

Beryllium is a mineral found in nature and is used in in a wide range of commercial and governmental applications. It was discovered in 1798 by the French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, and it was first commercially used in the 1920’s as a conductive spring component of the telephone switchboard. Beryllium is lightweight, incredibly strong, and has one of the highest melting points which is why it’s so valuable in computer electronics. It enables high-performance processors to pack an increased number and higher  density layers of high-frequency circuits into smaller packages. That means higher processing speeds and better performance for personal computers, routers, and the internet, as well as radars, avionics, and defense systems.  Beryllium is used in the communications industry to connect people all over the world.  On the ocean floor, copper-beryllium housing protects the fiber optic cables from the harsh ocean conditions.  After decades of use, the copper-beryllium housing shows little deterioration, even after decades of service

Dangers of Beryllium Exposure

.Beryllium is an incredible material with unlimited uses, but at the same time it is extremely toxic to lung tissue.  Employees with prolonged exposure can lead to Chronic Beryllium Disease, a debilitating lung disease with scar tissue in the lungs. Medical experts suggest even very low concentrations of Beryllium may cause the disease. A fact known to anyone who lives near Beryllium refineries and even the family members of workers who have prolonged exposure to the material, the dust is transported via worker’s’ clothes into their homes. The Cleveland Clinic describes the two types of Beryllium Disease, acute and chronic:

  • Acute Beryllium Disease is very rare today. Current workplace safety regulations prevent the massive quantities of Beryllium that cause Acute Beryllium Disease from being released into the air.
  • Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD, Berylliosis) is associated with inhaling Beryllium powder or fumes (although inhaling Beryllium does not always lead to CBD). An exposed person usually gets sensitized to Beryllium prior to progressing to CBD. Sensitization is similar to an allergy; when allergic or sensitized, the body overreacts negatively to that particular substance. Beryllium sensitivity and CBD can develop soon after exposure or many (30-40) years later. Of those working around Beryllium, about 10 percent get sensitized to it and about half of those progress to develop CBD.

beryllium chart

Prevention

Currently, there is no cure for Chronic Beryllium Disease, but the symptoms can be treated and employees can educate themselves on the ways to prevent exposure. The employer must follow standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), including:

  • Adequate ventilation of workspaces
  • Minimal use of beryllium over other, equivalent metals
  • Isolation of procedures using Beryllium
  • Safe use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuums for cleaning
  • The use of personal protective devices, including face masks and respirators

It is important for employees exposed to Beryllium to completely clean his or her work space and avoid eating, drinking, smoking, and applying makeup when working with Beryllium dust or fumes. If you work with Beryllium, there are a number of actions you can take to avoid exposing your family:

  • Remove street clothes and put on a uniform before entering the work area.
  • Before leaving work, leave the uniform in a hamper with a lid at the workplace.
  • Shower before leaving work.
  • Clean work shoes before leaving the work area and don’t wear them home.

 

 

 

 

 

References

OSHA

OSHA Fact Sheet

Beryllium Uses