January 12, 2017 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

Chronic beryllium disease is a horrible illness, as is lung cancer. Both diseases are the rationale for a new health standard issued by OSHA on January 9.

The rule is designed to protect the health of an estimated 60,000 workers in the U.S. who are exposed to the light-weight, super-strong metal: beryllium. This includes about 10,000 workers involved in electric-power generation; 9,000 workers in dental laboratories and dental offices; 8,400 in specialty construction trades; 5,600 in motor vehicle parts manufacturing; and 3,000 in the maritime industry who are welders and abrasive blasters.

The United Steelworkers (USW) deserve substantial credit for seeing that OSHA adopt this rule. Illnesses related to beryllium exposure have been a concern for the union for at least five decades. The Steelworkers were instrumental in OSHA’s early years to focus the agency’s attention on the hazard. The union represented thousands of workers who were exposed to beryllium and at risk of the serious health effects associated with it.

In 1975, OSHA proposed a rule to protect workers who were exposed to beryllium. In the dusty archives of that rulemaking, you’ll see the name Mike Wright. When OSHA held a public hearing on its proposed beryllium standard in 1977, Wright was a (young) safety expert who spoke on behalf of the Steelworkers. Wright later became the union’s director of health, safety, and environment and remains in that position today.

The OSHA regulation proposed in 1975 was not finalized during the Carter Administration. It was fiercely opposed by the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as the beryllium industry. It was still the Cold War and the metal was in demand for the U.S.’s war machine. After President Carter left office, in came the anti-regulatory Ronald Reagan, then Bush I, Clinton and Bush II. A beryllium standard was not a priority for OSHA during those administrations.

But for the Steelworkers, regulating workers’ exposure to beryllium remained an important goal. Moreover, by the late 2000’s, the world’s largest producer and supplier of beryllium, Materion (formerly Brush Wellman) was motivated to see an OSHA standard on beryllium put in place. Materion and the USW began to discuss the features of a health protective rule.

With Obama’s inauguration in 2009, I suspect the Steelworkers thought their discussions with Materion about a standard would be well received by OSHA. After all, the agency’s assistant secretary, David Michaels, was an expert on protections for workers from beryllium. He ran the Department of Energy’s (DOE) health and safety program in 1999 when it adopted its own Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program. (That rule applies specifically to DOE facilities.)

Knowing that OSHA takes way too long to issue new health standards, Materion and the Steelworkers took the matter into their own hands. They set out to jumpstart the OSHA rulemaking process. That involved several years of negotiations and resulted in the complete text for a proposed OSHA standard on the metal. These two key stakeholders agreed on the specific language for a reasonable and health protective regulation. The tough work was done. The USW and Materion submitted their document to OSHA in February 2012. Mike Wright noted:

“This was a two-year negotiation, but it wasn’t some sort of give and take. Rather, it was a mutual search for feasible measures that would best protect workers. We worked through many disagreements, but worker health was always the goal for both parties.”

That was nearly five years ago. At the time, I was eager to see whether the USW and Materion regulatory text for a proposed rule would jump start OSHA. Might this be a model to cut years off of OSHA’s snail pace for implementing new rules? I wanted that to be the case.

One year, two years, three years passed, and OSHA had still not proposed the rule. Finally, the agency developed a proposal and the required regulatory analyses to accompany it. Then, the Obama White House took 10 months to review OSHA’s work. The agency published the beryllium proposed rule in August 2015. It was substantially similar to the Materion-USW proposal that OSHA had received three and one-half years earlier.

The public feedback and hearing process concluded in May 2016. On the sidelines, I kept thinking….this is cutting it pretty close to the end of the Obama Administration. I suspect the USW was thinking the same thing, too.

Finally, just before the presidential election, OSHA finished its work. The White House review of the final rule on beryllium was completed in six weeks (on December 16) and the final rule published last week.  Besides celebrating the accomplishment, I bet the USW felt a sigh of relief.

This new OSHA standard reduces the permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 ug/m3 of air to 0.2 ug/m3. Employers will be required to use engineering and work practice controls to prevent workers from being exposed to beryllium. The rule includes requirements for employers to assess potential exposures and develop control plans, to provide appropriate respiratory protection when necessary, and offer medical examinations at facilities with expertise in beryllium-related disease. Among other requirements, employers are required to provide special worksite accommodations to workers who have beryllium-related health effects. OSHA will be phasing in the rule over the next three years.

I’ve no doubt that one Steelworker felt a particular sense of pride hearing OSHA’s official announcement of the beryllium final rule. Mike Wright stuck to his goal of securing health protections for USW members and other workers who are exposed to beryllium. It took a long time (way too long.) Wright and his colleagues deserve tremendous credit for never losing sight of the need for these protections.

One thought on “A union’s persistence results in new OSHA rule for workers exposed to beryllium

  1. Celeste:

    No question about the credit that Mike Wright deserves for sticking to the issue of Beryllium OSHA regulations for 40 years.
    However for historical accuracy it is important to notice the first labor efforts to obtain worker protection from an ever reluctant OSHA.
    Since 1976 OCAW through Tony Mazzocchi and Steve Wodka and the Denver OCAW health and safety office we pursued a campaign to defend the health of Beryllium workers by conducting the first ever union sponsored medical surveillance and the first union collected exposure surveys of Beryllium dust. This was done with the workers of the OCAW Local representing the Kwicky-Beryllium company in Pennsylvania.
    A interesting historical research should be done to find out why it took 40 years.

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