Updated: The federal agency responsible for workplace safety on Friday contemplated tighter regulation of the toxic metal beryllium, which exists in small amounts in coal slag, a product used as a blast abrasive to prepare the hulls and tanks of ships for coats of paint.
The product is also used in blasting operations on more traditional construction sites, and officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration briefed a special OSHA advisory committee representing construction industry representatives on a rule that could drop the limit for how much beryllium workers can be exposed to.
As recently as May an OSHA official had suggested that one option would be for the agency to further regulate beryllium for most workers while exempting construction and shipyard workers. That proposal wasn’t mentioned Friday.
Coal slag is a glassy byproduct of coal-fired power plants that for decades has been recycled and used for blasting operations at shipyards across the country, including Newport News Shipbuilding. It contains trace amounts of beryllium, which until last year was not listed on hazardous ingredient lists that manufacturers provide with their products.
Newport News Shipbuilding did not notify its employees when beryllium was added to the coal slag hazardous ingredients list. Workers and union officials said they knew nothing about its presence until it was pointed out by the Daily Press.
When blasted against the side of a ship or other surface, coal slag creates big clouds — blasters in shipbuilding and construction typically wear air-fed respirators and other protective equipment to avoid inhaling the dust.
Despite those measures, the OSHA officials said they were concerned that workers could be getting exposed to the metal, which an agency PowerPoint presentation said can cause lung cancer and a lung ailment called chronic beryllium disease.
“We believe that the main operation in construction where beryllium is an issue for workers is abrasive blasting,” said Tiffany DeFoe, an OSHA health scientist in the agency’s office of chemical hazards.
Though it can take years for exposed workers to show symptoms of chronic beryllium disease, DeFoe said they can quickly get the metal in their system, making them susceptible.
“Sensitization can happen very quickly, often within a person’s first month of employment,” she said.
She said workers not directly involved in blasting could still be at risk, though she said more study of such workers’ health is necessary to draw firmer conclusions.
Specifically, she referred to blast “helpers or people in the vicinity who might not be wearing protective equipment.”
On May 24, a different OSHA scientist spoke to the same construction industry advisory committee about the agency’s options for lowering the exposure limit for beryllium, which now stands at 2 micrograms per cubic meter.
That scientist, David Valiante, said OSHA could take a number of approaches ranging from mandating better ventilation to cutting the exposure limit tenfold to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.
But at that time, Valiante threw out another path the agency could: “a limited scope option, which would exempt construction and maritime” industries.
The notion of carving out a looser limit for construction sites and shipyard facilities did not come up Friday.
Instead DeFoe listed options for the permissible exposure limit, ranging from 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter to 1 microgram per cubic meter.
It’s not clear if a separate OSHA advisory committee for the maritime community will weigh in on the beryllium rule, which the agency has been working on for about 12 years. The Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health hasn’t met in 2013 and met only once in 2012, in February.
Keith Wrightson, a public safety and worker health expert with Public Citizen, told the construction committee his organization favors a 0.2 microgram per cubic meter standard, a level that’s also been backed by the United Steelworkers, which has the largest union local at Newport News Shipbuilding.
That 0.2 microgram limit also has support from the biggest beryllium manufacturer in the country, Materion Brush, an Ohio-based company that makes beryllium components for a number of companies including in the energy and aerospace industries.
Manufacturers of coal slag, however, say their product is not dangerous if workers take proper safety precautions. A leading manufacturer, Harsco Corp., has argued that the slag’s glassy composition seals in impurities like beryllium.
The manufacturers say alternative blast abrasives carry their own health risks and they’ve been skeptical of OSHA claims that beryllium in coal slag can lead to ailments.
Lowering just the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the toxic metal beryllium in the construction sector is one option being considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as publication of a proposed rule on general beryllium exposure nears, an OSHA official said on Dec. 6, 2013.
Tiffany DeFoe, an OSHA health scientist in the agency’s office of chemical hazards, previewed the range of options OSHA is weighing for its construction industry advisory committee. These include lowering the exposure limit for beryllium in construction from 2 micrograms per cubic meter down to anywhere from 1 microgram per cubic meter to 0.1 microgram per cubic meter.
Scheduled to be issued in April 2014, the proposed rules on beryllium exposure in general industry will likely differ from the construction standard. Existing OSHA construction standards safeguard workers from beryllium exposure by mandating that they use respiratory protection and personal protective clothing, but OSHA is still concerned about the health risks of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and lung cancer, DeFoe said. CBD is a scarring of the lungs that can cause coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue.
“We feel that many of the provisions of the [general industry] rule may not be feasible or effective in a construction setting where we think it’s mainly abrasive-blasting workers who may be exposed,” she explained.
According to DeFoe, the PEL options being considered are 0.1, 0.2, 0.5 and 1 microgram per cubic meter. OSHA is also considering introducing a short-term exposure limit “to get some of those very high exposures under control.”
The United Steelworkers and the largest beryllium manufacturer in the country, Materion Brush, support a 0.2 microgram limit.
Another option the agency is mulling over is extending medical surveillance to the construction industry, including physical screening, testing for beryllium sensitization, and CT scans to detect lung cancer, DeFoe said.
The Center for Construction Research and Training, an arm of the AFL-CIO, recommends that employers test for airborne beryllium exposure if there is any risk present and substitute alternative products for any containing beryllium, if possible. The center also suggests that businesses provide exhaust ventilation and the proper respirators and gloves.
Construction Safety Update
Jim Maddux, OSHA’s director of construction, briefed the committee on the progress of agency initiatives relating to construction safety. He led off with the disturbing news that the number of fatalities in construction rose to 775 in 2012 from 738 in 2011. Falls were the leading cause of construction deaths in 2012, accounting for 269 fatalities.
“We’re seeing an increase in fatalities as construction work comes back from the recession; it’s something I’ve been dreading,” Maddux said. “As construction increases and new workers enter the industry and new employers form to do construction work, we need to make safety improvements now.”
Maddux said that OSHA is continuing to make progress on the confined-spaces standard for construction. The agency is also moving along with the economic analysis of a backover standard. Backover incidents occur when a vehicle backing up strikes a worker. More than 70 workers died from backover accidents in 2011.
“There’s still work to be done on cranes,” he said. In 2010, OSHA issued a final standard establishing requirements for cranes and derricks used in construction work. The standard requires employers to ensure that crane operators on construction sites are certified by November 2014. After the standard was issued, several industry groups informed OSHA of serious problems and limitations associated with the crane-operator certification, so the agency decided to address those problems through a separate rulemaking on operator qualification. Maddux said the proposed rule extending the crane-operator certification deadline until November 2017 will be issued by the end of the year.
The agency is also looking at crafting a detailed directive for OSHA compliance officers on how to cite various crane-standard violations.
Maddux informed the committee that OSHA will focus more on communication tower workers in 2014 because of the industry spike in fatalities this year. Fourteen communication tower workers died this year, more than the past two years combined. He speculated that the increase in fatal accidents was due to the telecommunications industry’s 4G overhaul, requiring new towers and antennae to be placed on existing towers.
Fall-Prevention Campaign Renewed
In other news, Maddux announced that OSHA will renew its collaborative fall-prevention campaign for 2014.
The agency has been working closely with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, trade associations, labor unions, employers, universities, community organizations and consulates to provide employers and workers with education and training on fall-prevention equipment and strategies.
“We feel like we’ve been very successful in getting a lot of eyeballs on this, a lot of Web traffic,” with 300,000 pieces of literature distributed and more than half a million page views, he said. “It has been an enormously popular campaign.”
The agency has logged 2,829 fall-prevention outreach activities since the campaign was launched, in April 2012. OSHA conducted 5,869 onsite consultation visits related to fall protection in construction, including 1,707 training sessions and 806 presentations.
The agency also created a fall-prevention Web page with detailed information on fall-protection standards, presented in English and Spanish.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
Video Courtesy of “The Elements Unearthed” : http://elementsunearthed.com/tag/chronic-beryllium-disease/