By Brad Sant, senior vice president of Safety & Education, ARTBA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Dec. 11 issued a memorandum with updated interim enforcement guidance for beryllium standards in the general, construction, and shipyard industries.  The memo provides new information on the rule that OSHA began enforcing in the spring.

The updated regulation includes a lower 8-hour permissible exposure limit (PEL) and short-term (15-minute) exposure limit (STEL).  The permissible exposure limit is set at 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air and the short-term exposure limit of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in electronics and the defense industry. Construction workers are not likely to experience significant exposure except during specific operations such as abrasive blasting to remove paint from bridge trusses or other metal surfaces.  Exposure to beryllium could occur using abrasives containing coal slag, a glassy, granularized byproduct of burned coal. Coal slag contains traces of beryllium.

Researchers have extensively documented the skin and lung disorders exhibited by workers who mine, smelt or otherwise encounter high exposures to the metal. However, most exposure to construction workers has occurred at nuclear weapons facilities operated by the Department of Energy (DOE) where workers have been exposed to relatively low levels of beryllium for many years.

Overexposure can cause serious health risks, including incurable chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.

Update of General Duty Clause

In November, OSHA also issued a memorandum that clarifies its existing policy for developing citations using its general duty clause for respiratory hazards from exposure to an air contaminant that is not covered by a permissible exposure limit (PEL).

The following elements must be established for OSHA to prove any violation of the general duty clause:

  • The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  • The hazard was recognized;
  • The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and,
  • There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The memorandum states that unless the case file evidence proves all four of the above elements for respiratory hazards, the OSHA Area Office should issue a hazard alert letter (HAL) instead of a citation.  If there is sufficient proof of the four elements, the Area Office should issue a citation for a general duty clause violation.  The memorandum provides additional guidance for developing evidence for each of the four general duty clause elements when specifically applied to respiratory hazards.