Fifteen Years Later, Beryllium Victims Are Still Waiting for Lifesaving Regulation
Imagine that you have a debilitating lung condition requiring you to use an oxygen tank at all times. Breathing is so difficult that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle to complete.
That’s the reality that chronic beryllium disease (CBD) patients like Bruce Revers must live with on a daily basis. Mr. Revers was diagnosed with CBD in 2009 after he was exposed to beryllium in his workplace.
CBD, also known as berylliosis, is a lung disease that occurs when a person inhales beryllium dust. Beryllium is a metal present in many materials used in the aerospace, defense, telecommunications, automotive, electronics and medical specialty industries. Workers performing abrasive blasting operations in the construction and shipyard industries also are exposed to beryllium at toxic levels.
Beryllium is associated with lung cancer. Even though Mr. Revers wore a respirator in the factory where he worked, he still contracted CBD because the standards for allowable exposure are still much too high to be safe for workers in these industries.
CBD is incurable. However, it is preventable.
Public Citizen is renewing its call for the Obama administration to protect workers from this deadly metal. This September marks the 15th anniversary of our organization urging the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to update the grossly inadequate beryllium standard, which is based on outdated science from the 1940s.
OSHA first attempted to strengthen protections for workers from beryllium exposure in 1975, but it was stymied by industry backlash and the rule never went forward. That’s why in 2001, Public Citizen, along with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union – which has since merged with the United Steelworkers – petitioned OSHA to lower workers’ exposure to beryllium.
In the 15 years since our petition, workers have faced the incapacitating and sometimes fatal consequences of beryllium exposure while waiting for a stronger regulation. Although OSHA denied our petition at the time, it still made an impact.
The agency placed beryllium back on its regulatory agenda in 2002, yet years of foot-dragging followed. More than a decade passed before OSHA finally submitted a proposed rule to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review in September 2014.
In August 2015, OSHA publicly released the proposed rule, which would greatly reduce workers’ exposure to beryllium. OSHA’s new proposal for occupational beryllium exposure limit is one-tenth of the current limit. The proposed standard is still too high according to the latest scientific research, which was carried out while regulators dithered. Nevertheless, it would be a vast improvement for workers.
It is uncertain whether the White House, during the final months of the administration, will prioritize issuing a final rule to limit workers’ exposure to beryllium. But there is no reason not to make the current beryllium rulemaking a priority. Even industry pushback is waning.
OSHA’s original attempt at a stronger beryllium standard in the 1970s was defeated by collaboration between the beryllium industry and the U.S. Department of Energy, which put the interests of the nuclear weapons industry ahead of the health and lives of working people. Now, just a handful of business groups are pressuring OSHA to exclude their industries from the rule.
And one of the main supporters of a stronger beryllium standard is Materion Corporation, a top beryllium manufacturer. The company even worked with the United Steelworkers to submit a joint proposal for a beryllium standard in 2012 to OSHA, and the agency used this industry-labor model when it developed its current proposal. Nothing is standing in the way except the political will to finalize the rule.
The law is clear: Congress created OSHA “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” And as Mr. Revers’ story demonstrates, without an adequate standard in place, companies won’t properly shield their employees from the devastating effects of beryllium.
The beryllium rule has languished in the regulatory process for far too long. Not one more worker should have to die waiting for our government to act.