In what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration described as a collaboration among government, industry, and organized labor, the safety agency has proposed a comprehensive rule to reduce exposure to beryllium among employees in general industry.

“It is noteworthy that the nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers union, which represents many of those who work with beryllium, agreed that greater protections were needed,” OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels said in announcing the proposal in a teleconference on August 6. “Together, they created a framework for moving forward with a rule and brought it to OSHA in 2012.” OSHA has asked for comments on whether the rule should apply beyond the beryllium industry.

Beryllium is a potential health concern because inhaling or contacting it can cause an immune response, leaving an individual sensitized to the metal, OSHA said. Individuals with beryllium sensitization can develop a debilitating lung disease, called chronic beryllium disease (CBD), if they inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized. Other adverse health effects include acute beryllium disease and lung cancer. Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have labeled beryllium a human carcinogen.

The proposal (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-08-07/pdf/2015-17596.pdf) calls for a 90% reduction in the permissible exposure limit (PEL), to 0.2 micrograms of respirable beryllium per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) averaged over eight hours, from the current 2.0 µg/m3. According to OSHA, the limit was first proposed in 1948 and was adopted by OSHA in 1971. The agency said it first proposed a lower PEL in 1975.

“We have known for decades that the allowable exposure levels for beryllium are inadequate,” Michaels said.

Additional provisions include mandatory monitoring of workers’ exposure, restricted access to areas where beryllium exposures exceed the proposed PEL, control measures for reducing exposures, medical surveillance (including medical exams for workers with elevated exposure), medical removal protections, worker training, and recordkeeping.

The proposal covers approximately 35,000 workers in general industry, with the majority working in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing, and dental labs. However, general industry workers in coal-burning plants and aluminum production, who may be exposed to beryllium as a trace element in coal fly ash and crude aluminum ore, are not covered. Abrasive blasters in the construction and shipyards industries also are not covered. These workers will remain under the current 2 µg/m3 standard.

Lightweight and strong, beryllium is an essential material in the aerospace, telecommunications, defense, computer, medical, and nuclear industries. It is classified as a strategic and critical material by the Defense Department. The Labor Department has paid more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who have developed CBD.

OSHA estimates that once the full effects of the rule are realized, the proposed rule will prevent 96 fatalities from CBD and lung cancer and 50 new cases of CBD every year. The proposal is estimated to average $575.8 million in annual benefits for the next 60 years while costing covered workplaces $37.6 million annually.The proposal appeared in the Federal Register on August 7. Comments are due by November 5, 2015, and may be made electronically to http://www.regulations.gov, referencing Docket Number OSHA-H005C-2006-0870. The agency has not scheduled public hearings.