As a component in various specialized materials and alloys, beryllium is an essential resource for members of the aerospace, energy, communications and many other industries. Its physical properties as a strong and light-weight metal make it an indispensable resource for some applications, but the element also presents significant health hazards to workers as well as the general environment.
The use of beryllium compounds was already subject to regulations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the last four decades. However, recent changes in the agency’s rulings has made 2018 a significant year for all companies involved in beryllium production or handling. Impacted businesses must adapt their procedures and policies to reflect more stringent controls on exposure in addition to disposal and recycling methods.
The Human and Environmental Risks of Beryllium
Beryllium is both a volatile and toxic substance that presents serious risks to human health. Exposure through inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact has been linked to chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and lung cancer, which produce crippling and potentially fatal symptoms. Beryllium has high flammable potential in several forms and creates an explosion risk when particles are spread the air. The element and its compounds also react violently when exposed to other types of substances used in industrial processes, including acids and bases.
After years of research, review and feedback from various groups involved in impacted industries, OSHA found that the previous regulations were not sufficiently protecting workers. The purpose of the new rules regarding storage and handling are primarily designed to mitigate occupational health risks, but also include provisions to limit general environmental and public exposure.
Major Changes in the 2018 Beryllium Standards
The recent regulatory changes can be broken down into several main points:
● Updates to Standard PEL
● Creation of Short-Term Limits
● Workplace and Protective Equipment Requirements
● Provision of Medical Benefits
Updates and Clarification to Standard PEL
Standard limitations on permissible exposure to toxic compounds, including beryllium, are calculated based on an 8-hour average workday, the standard period of anticipated exposure. The new regulations reduce the standard PEL (permissible exposure limit) to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The rules also establish specific requirements for handling of materials containing less than 0.1 percent beryllium by weight, and separate provisions for materials with higher percentages of the compound.
Creation of Short-Term Limits
The new OSHA rules also introduce a short-term exposure limit (STEL) applicable to periods of 15 minutes or less. The current STEL has been established at 2.0 micrograms per cubic foot of air.
Workplace and Protective Equipment Requirements
In addition to limiting access to areas with high exposure risk, companies are also required to take extra measures to prevent the element from becoming airborne. The rules seek to protect worker health by mandating the use of better protective gear for people working in areas of exposure as well. Employers are expected to create and implement formal plans, including a training program, regarding beryllium containment.
Provision of Medical Benefits
All employers that handle beryllium or conduct operations where exposure is possible are now required to provide routine medical exams for impacted workers. These exams help identify the early warning signs of health issues resulting from exposure. Proactive screenings such as chest x-rays allow for earlier treatment of developing health conditions and provide companies with insight into potential deficits in their current
Facing the Challenges of Compliance
Tighter controls and more regulations on beryllium have an undeniable impact on employers who need to adjust their operations to fit new compliance standards. Despite the regulatory hurdles, the distinct and recognized hazards of the compound make these new rules an essential step in protecting worker health. In fact, official forecasts predict that the new standards could prevent around 90 occupation-related deaths per
year, according to OSHA.
Complying with tighter regulations does require an initial and ongoing investment, but this transition is also an opportunity for companies to increase their value and standing in their industry. Reducing workplace injuries and health issues not only improves employee loyalty, it also helps businesses avoid the consequences of a serious accident and penalties or other legal ramifications from non-compliance.
As an established environmental and engineering consultant, ATC Group Services understands the many challenges facing businesses struggling to adapt to new regulations. We keep our finger on the pulse of the industry and monitor all changes in applicable regulations so we can guide our clients towards cost-effective solutions to achieve complete compliance. Contact your local branch today for more information on beryllium standards and compliance.