Staten Island construction workers, manufacturers and those who work in shipyards may have reason for concern after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it is delaying enforcement of its new beryllium standards.
What is beryllium and why is it dangerous?
Beryllium is a lightweight, strong metal often used in the manufacture of electronics and information technology systems. As more and more industries become automated, this means that beryllium or beryllium compounds can be found in variety of products, from car engines and personal computers to telescopes and missile defense systems.
Despite its usefulness, beryllium is toxic, and can cause major damage to the lungs if inhaled. Overexposure can cause workers to develop occupational illnesses like lung cancer or chronic beryllium disease, which is currently incurable.
What OSHA proposes
Because of these hazards, OSHA began investigating ways to limit workers’ exposure to beryllium in 2002. On January 9, 2017, it published a final ruling reducing the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of beryllium to .2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over the course of an eight-hour shift. It also introduced a new short-term exposure limit of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute period.
Additionally, employers must ensure their engineering facilities and work practices adequately address the risks of beryllium exposure by providing:
- Well-ventilated work environments where possible
- Respirators in places where exposure cannot be tightly controlled
- Regular training on the hazards of beryllium
- Access to regular medical examination and treatment
These new standards update a generic 40-year-old rule on permissible exposure limits to beryllium that left many without adequate protection if they developed an occupational disease due to beryllium exposure. They are expected to save 90 lives from beryllium-related diseases and prevent up to 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease annually. The new rules went into effect May 20, 2017, and enforcement of them was set to begin March 12 of this year.
Unfortunately, however, that enforcement has now been delayed until May 11, 2018. According to OSHA’s statement, the 60-day postponement is meant to provide employers with “adequate notice” as to when enforcement actions will begin and to allow current negotiations on existing beryllium lawsuits to settle.
Who is most at risk?
Welders, machinists, metal fabricators, machine operators, foundry workers and those who recycle electronic equipment like smelters can all be exposed to the material in the course of their work. Of the 62,000 workers in the United States exposed to beryllium, 11,500 are construction workers or shipbuilders specifically.
Even when these new rules are enforced, workers who have developed occupational diseases due to their exposure to toxic or dangerous substances on the job may have a right to compensation for their medical bills. A workers’ compensation lawyer may be able to help injured and ill workers to pursue their rightful benefits and potentially seek damages.