The Trump Administration’s Beryllium Proposal Would Poison Workers

The Trump Administration’s Beryllium Proposal Would Poison Workers
Anthony Wahl/The Janesville Gazette via AP
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The Trump administration is turning out to be toxic for workers. In June, the administration announced a proposal that could endanger workers in the construction and shipyard industries. The proposal would eliminate part of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule – issued during President Barack Obama’s final days in office – that protects workers from beryllium, a poisonous metal.

President Trump’s decision to put workers’ lives at risk should be shocking but isn’t. Instead of pursuing an agenda that protects working people, Trump’s policies have consistently jeopardized the health and safety of all Americans.

After being sworn into office, Trump and his corporate Cabinet began dismantling Obama-era public protections. One of his first deregulatory actions was to sign the infamous “one-in-two-out” executive order (EO) requiring federal agencies to undo two regulations for every new rule issued. When signing the EO, he said, “Every regulation should have to pass a simple test: Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers? If the answer is no, we will be … getting rid of it quickly.”

But the order prevents agencies from imposing any new net costs on regulated industries, while forcing them to disregard the benefits of protecting working families from preventable diseases and injuries. Public Citizen and other public interest groups recently filed a lawsuit to block this unconstitutional move.

Next, Trump began working with his Republican enablers in Congress to eliminate workplace protections through the use of an obscure law – the Congressional Review Act (CRA). In addition to rolling back safeguards protecting Americans from the dangers of pollution and corporate corruption, Trump and the GOP Congress repealed crucial labor protections like the fair pay and safe workplaces EO and the worker health and safety recordkeeping rule (also known as OSHA’s Volks rule).

Now that lawmakers can no longer use the CRA to quash Obama-era protections, the Trump administration has turned to executive branch rulemaking procedures to attack other workplace safety protections, like the critical beryllium rule. Instead of protecting workers, Trump has chosen to poison them.

OSHA’s beryllium rule was designed to prevent working people from contracting and potentially dying from deadly illnesses resulting from contact with the toxic metal. Beryllium is known to cause lung cancer and other fatal diseases, such as chronic beryllium disease (CBD) of the lungs, when even very low levels are inhaled. CBD is incurable, and it eventually kills many of those afflicted. Patients living with CBD report that even simple tasks like collecting the morning newspaper from the curb are a struggle.

According to OSHA’s own data, 62,000 people encounter beryllium in the workplace, including an estimated 11,500 construction and shipyard workers who perform open-air abrasive blasting. OSHA also has found that 70 percent of construction and shipyard workers who come into contact with beryllium while performing open-air abrasive blasting are exposed to airborne beryllium that can result in debilitating lifelong illnesses and early deaths.

The administration’s proposal to significantly weaken the rule comes in response to industry groups accusing OSHA of rushing through this rulemaking without giving them a chance to weigh in. Such claims have no basis in reality. In a rulemaking process that lasted more than a decade, OSHA asked stakeholders to comment on whether its final beryllium rule should extend protections to workers in the construction and shipyard industries.

After careful consideration of input from labor unions, industry groups and public health experts, the agency determined that it needed to protect these workers with a lower permissible exposure limit of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air – a limit that is preserved in the Trump administration’s proposal. But OSHA also recognized the need to mandate other specific ancillary provisions for construction and shipyard workers, including exposure assessments, personal protective equipment, medical surveillance and protected work areas. The new proposal would revoke these protections.

Still worse, OSHA has indicated it will not enforce the beryllium rule at all in the construction and shipyard industries while the agency considers its new proposal for months, potentially years. This cruel delay means that even more workers in these industries are likely to be afflicted with potentially deadly beryllium-related diseases while waiting for OSHA to enforce the beryllium rule.

If the Trump administration moves forward with this proposal, the consequences for workers will be devastating. Construction and shipyard workers deserve to be able to go to work without risking their lives. This new proposal should be rescinded and the beryllium rule should be enforced without further delay.

Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Almashat is a research associate for Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

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