The Trump administration today — Workers Memorial Day — initiated its first real OSHA regulatory rollback — a proposed weakening or elimination of worker protections from deadly beryllium dust.
While it’s not clear what is actually in the proposal that OSHA submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review yesterday, knowledgeable observers think its a weakening or elimination for coverage of construction and maritime workers in the Beryllium standards.
No details of the OSHA proposal are available. The effective date of the standard has been extended to May 20, so it is generally assumed that a full proposal will be published in the Federal Register before that date. Because the Congress did not use the Congressional Review Act to take action against the beryllium standard, the Trump administration will have to go through the entire rulemaking procedure to make a change in the standard. That means gathering pubic input and holding hearings.
This apparent weakening of the beryllium standard is particularly irritating as development of he standard was largely a product of labor-management agreement between the main manufacturer of beryllium, Materion, and the United Steelworkers union. The modification or repeal of the maritime and construction sectors are have nothing to do with the health of workers. It’s purely the result of pressure from the small coal slag industry which fears that companies that use beryllium-contaminated coal slag for abrasive blasting will find substitutes that don’t contain beryllium.
If OSHA is planning to eliminate coverage, it would then have to make a determination that beryllium in coal slag did not actually present a “significant risk” to workers, despite the evidence compiled to support the original standard. OSHA could also determine that coverage of construction and maritime was not economically or technologically feasible as an excuse to eliminate or weaken protections. Again, evidence compiled during the original rule-making process show that controlling (or substituting a safer product) is feasible.
Beryllium is a strong, highly flexible metal used in aerospace and other industries. When ground, sanded or cut, the metal’s dust can cause an incurable, often fatal lung disease. Last December, OSHA issued a new rule, 10 times stronger than the old one established in the 1940s. It had been clear for decades that the old rule did not protect workers. About 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium in their workplaces, including approximately 11,500 construction and shipyard workers who may conduct abrasive blasting operations using slags that contain trace amounts of beryllium. OSHA estimates that the rule will save 90 lives from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of chronic beryllium disease each year, once the effects of the rule are fully realized. The rule is projected to provide net benefits of about $560.9 million, annually.
Workers in these industries are mostly exposed to beryllium during abrasive blasting operations that use coal slag that contains trace amounts of beryllium. While those who do the blasting are suited up to protect themselves, bystanders, those who clean up afterwards and others are at documented risk of exposure to beryllium. Coal slag, a by-product of burning coal in coal fired energy plants, is big business for a few companies that sell it. And unfortunately for them, there are other, safer products that can be substituted for most uses.
That the coal slag industry was opposing coverage of construction and maritime was no secret. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), whose district includes the Newport News shipyards, wrote a letter to the White House last year urging them to cover these sectors in the beryllium standard, discussing the hazards faced by maritime workers and the opposition of the industry.
The original OSHA beryllium proposal did not cover maritime or construction — and the industry claims that insufficient “notice” was given that they might be covered. If you read the OSHA proposal, however, you will note that there are numerous places where coverage of shipyard and construction workers is presented as an alternative, and comments are requested. Comments were, in fact, provided at the hearings and in written form as the new standard was being considered.
A Chicago Tribune article by Sam Roe, published when the standard was issued last year, describes the devastating effects of beryllium-related disease:
Dr. Lee Newman, a leading beryllium researcher, said the new rule will save lives and reduce suffering.
“Because it is not just about the people who die; it’s about the years that people live with the terrible suffering of not being able to breathe, having chronic coughs, having the terrible fatigue that comes with chronic beryllium disease,” Newman said. “It’s a very slow, wasting lung disease.”
Lung cancer is associated with occupational exposure to beryllium by inhaling beryllium-containing dust, fumes or mist. Roe reminds that “The old exposure limit, established in 1949, was based largely on guesswork and dubbed “the taxicab standard” because a government health official and an industry medical consultant came up with the rule in the back of a taxi.”