By Ashley Johnson, associate editor
The partnership seems unlikely – a union and a manufacturer working together on federal regulation. But the United Steelworkers and Materion Brush Inc. share a concern for protecting workers from beryllium, a lightweight metal that has been linked to a chronic lung disease and cancer.
In February, after two years of discussions, USW and Materion submitted a model beryllium standard to OSHA in hopes of speeding up the agency’s development of a new standard.
“What we see this proposal doing is providing a really good way forward to get more employees better protected faster that work with beryllium,” said Patrick Carpenter, vice president of corporate communications for Mayfield Heights, OH-based Materion, the sole producer of pure beryllium metal in the United States.
OSHA adopted its current permissible exposure limit for beryllium in 1971, and has been considering updating it for years. OSHA’s latest regulatory agenda, published Jan. 20, delayed action on beryllium, classifying the rulemaking under “long-term actions.”
NIOSH estimates that as many as 134,000 U.S. workers may be exposed to beryllium. In their model standard, USW and Materion proposed reducing the PEL by 90 percent – from 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour time-weighted average to 0.2 micrograms. Their recommendation lines up with the PEL adopted by the Department of Energy in the final rule establishing its Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program in 1999.
Carpenter expressed confidence that industry can “reasonably achieve” the lower standard.
James Frederick, assistant director of health, safety and environment at Pittsburgh-based USW, voiced a similar view based on experience with unionized workplaces. “The vast majority of workplaces are already striving to get a much lower level than the current PEL,” he said.
The model standard would require feasible engineering controls in operations that generate beryllium dust or fumes, and includes provisions absent from the current regulation regarding exposure monitoring, medical surveillance and training.
As part of medical surveillance, the draft recommends a new technique for measuring lung cancer. The technique, based on work done at DOE, consists of a helical CT scan of the torso to identify cancer in the early, treatable stages, according to Frederick.
The draft text draws on the experience of labor, as well as Materion’s beryllium health and safety program, which Carpenter said was developed in partnership with NIOSH over the past 13 years. “We believe it provides a ready-made formula that we hope can be adopted at the earliest opportunity possible,” he said.
OSHA is reviewing the proposal, which an agency spokesperson said “contains many of the fundamental elements of a comprehensive health standard, as well as some innovative approaches to protecting worker health.” The spokesperson added that work on a beryllium standard has been ongoing, but OSHA is revising the economic and technological feasibility analyses in light of recent data.
Carpenter called the two-year negotiation between USW and Materion a “constructive and instructive process.” He credited USW for its courage and Materion for being willing to share its safety model.
Although beryllium users already recognize the need to reduce exposures, Carpenter emphasized the need for a “reasonable standard that has the force of law behind it.”
Frederick agreed. “The problem [with voluntary measures] is that they are voluntary, and not everyone chooses to volunteer,” he said. “We know it’s a hazard, and we know that it can be controlled. And OSHA should be regulating it to make sure that it’s a level playing field.”