Beryllium Rule Will Impact the Industry
Robert Grupe / August 2017
Q: I’ve heard that there is an OSHA Rule on Occupational Exposure to beryllium specific for construction. Can you clarify this new ruling?
A: There have been some recent changes in OSHA’s approach to beryllium and these changes, if enforced, will impact the construction industry. Beryllium is a naturally occurring chemical element, and can be found in many construction materials. This element is commonly found in combination with other elements forming minerals. When combined with aluminum, copper, iron and nickel, beryllium improves material properties. For example, conductivity is enhanced if beryllium is added to copper. According to OSHA, “Workers who inhale airborne beryllium in the workplace can develop a lung condition called chronic beryllium disease, or CBD. Occupational exposure to beryllium has also been linked to lung cancer.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has classified beryllium as a human carcinogen. The task in construction that is most closely linked to exposure to beryllium dust is abrasive blasting. According to a fact sheet published by OSHA relating to construction and shipyards, “exposure to beryllium primarily occurs when metal slags that contain trace amounts of beryllium (<0.1% by weight) are used in abrasive blasting operations.”
The ruling has a little history attached to it. The first iteration was implemented over 40 years ago, and back in 2002 OSHA asked for public comment on a possible update. That led to the current publication that was developed in 2015–2016. There were three standards in that ruling. The individual standards cover general industry, shipyards and construction. The construction standard is designated as 1926.1124. The schedule for implementation has the ruling taking effect May 2017, with compliance commencing in March 2018. Employers will have an additional year, up to 2019, to initiate some of the more rigorous requirements.
Since the 2015–2016 release, concerns were raised from many factions including the construction industry in general and members of Congress. The main concerns were that there had been little opportunity to evaluate the impact of the ruling or to offer comment. As a result of those concerns, a modification was proposed and released in January 2017.
The current proposal for the construction standard eliminates what are termed “ancillary provisions.” These include provisions for housekeeping and personal protective equipment. The January 2017 proposal focuses on maintaining but reducing worker exposure limits from the original ruling. These limits are established as personal exposure limit or PEL. The PEL for beryllium is set at 0.2 µg/m3. This limit is for an 8-hour time weighted average. Additionally, there is a short-term limit, STEL, for 15 minutes at 2.0 µg/m3. This PEL value is actually lower than the original proposed ruling.
OSHA has published a summary document of the proposed January 2017 ruling specific to construction and shipyards. It is offered as a free download from the OSHA website. This document is entitled “OSHA’s 2017 Proposed Rule on Occupational Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds in Construction and Shipyard Sectors.” In that pamphlet, OSHA suggests that the reason for reconsidering the standard relating to construction is that possibly the current existing standards provide adequate protection against beryllium. One existing standard that might provide that protection for construction workers is Ventilation standard 1926.57. At the time of this writing, OSHA is soliciting public comment on if the existing standards are effective for beryllium and for, in general, the January proposal.
Even with the aforementioned schedule for implementation, this new proposal postpones any compliance requirements for construction. The following statement has been posted by OSHA: “OSHA will not enforce the January 2017 construction and shipyard standards without further notice. Employers are also encouraged to participate in this proposed rulemaking.”
If this ruling is limited to abrasive blasting, why should a contractor be concerned with this ruling? The Construction Industry Safety Coalition, of which AWCI is a member, has been monitoring this ruling. CISC has been a very active opponent to certain aspects of the OSHA ruling on crystalline silica, and they provide an answer to that earlier stated question. Their position is that a major concern for the construction industry is that beryllium, as stated earlier, is naturally occurring, and is therefore a trace element in many construction materials. Construction site practices may trigger exposure limits.
The prudent contractor should stay informed on this ruling and keep a watchful eye on how it evolves. At the present time, there is no compliance requirement in place for construction, and further, no schedule for implementation. The only date that has been established is that any public comment should be dated no later than Aug. 28, 2017. The threat to human health is real, but current practices that are in place may be adequate to prevent or minimize exposure.
Robert Grupe is AWCI’s director of technical services. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him directly at (703) 538.1611.