Chronic beryllium disease is not a pretty thing. It causes scarring within the lungs, which eventually reduces the lungs’ ability to function. Symptoms include difficulty breathing/shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, joint pain, cough and fever. Over time it may lead to disability and death.
It’s not pretty, but the good news is that it’s completely preventable and OSHA issued a standard just over a year ago to protect workers against exposure to beryllium dust.
The bad news is that the Trump administration doesn’t care. Last year, OSHA decided to weaken beryllium protections for maritime and construction workers. And last Friday afternoon, OSHA issued a press release announcing that “OSHA Will Enforce Beryllium Standard Starting in May.” That may sound like good news except that the agency somehow neglected to finish the headline which should have continued “…Instead of in March As The Standard Requires.”
Fridays are always a good day for government to announce bad news.
The reason for the two-month delay is that “In response to feedback from stakeholders, the agency is considering technical updates to the January 2017 general industry standard, which will clarify and simplify compliance with requirements.” That’s all well and fine. There are often “technical updates” after OSHA issues a new standard. But these technical updates rarely change how or when the standard will be enforced. Furthermore, there is only one major beryllium manufacturer, Materion, which reached an agreement with the United Steel Workers union and OSHA that formed the basis for the final standard. Materion supposedly has no problem complying with requirements it helped develop. Plus, it’s been over a year since the standard was issued — more than enough time to straighten out those issues sufficiently to begin enforcement.
The two month delay will kill 16 workers. We don’t know who they are, who their kids or spouses are, but we do know that there’s no reason for them to die,.
The agency also announced that for construction and maritime workers OSHA will begin enforceing “the new lower 8-hour permissible exposure limit (PEL) and short-term (15-minute) exposure limit (STEL)” starting May 11. Last June, OSHA issued a proposal to keep the new PEL, but remove the “ancillary provisions” for construction and shipyard workers. The ancillary provisions would have required employers to provide exposure monitoring, regulated areas (and a “competent person” in construction), a written exposure control plan, personal protective equipment (PPE), and work clothing, hygiene areas and practices, housekeeping, medical surveillance, medical removal, and worker training for construction and shipyard workers exposed to beryllium from abrasive blasting using coal slag compounds that contain beryllium.
Although OSHA has not issued a final rule enshrining the changes in the law, the agency has apparently decided to go ahead with its plan anyway.
Finally, the agency announced that “In the interim, if an employer fails to meet the new PEL or STEL, OSHA will inform the employer of the exposure levels and offer assistance to assure understanding and compliance.” That’s not even a slap on the wrist; more like a pat on the head. There is already plenty of information and assistance out there to help employers protect workers and they’ve known for over a year that they’ve had to figure it out. Now it’s time for them to actually do it. Plus, removing the requirement for construction and maritime employers to provide exposure monitoring significantly decreases the chance that an employer — or workers — will know if they’ve been exceeding that PEL.
So two months. What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, as former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels testified at last week’s OSHA hearing before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, OSHA estimated that the standard would save 92 lives a year — that comes to about 8 workers every month. So the two month delay will kill 16 workers. We don’t know who they are, or who their kids or spouses are.
But we do know that there’s no reason for them to die.