Labor Dept. to unveil worker protection rule

Labor Dept. to unveil worker protection rule
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The Obama administration will unveil a long awaited proposal Thursday to lower workplace exposure to beryllium, a widely used metal that’s known to cause a deadly lung disease.

The proposed rule would lower the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's (OSHA) current eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Department of Labor (DOL) said updating the OSHA standard, first adopted in 1971, is expected to impact an estimated 35,000 workers and prevent up to 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses each year.

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The brittle, steel-gray material is an essential component of nuclear weapons. The DOL said it has paid more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who developed chronic beryllium disease as a result of being exposed to it in the workplace.

“This proposal will save lives and help thousands of workers stay healthy and be more productive on the job,” Secretary of Labor Thomas PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE said. “We’re pleased that industry has been such a strong voice in advocating for a more rigorous standard. The proposal is strong because of unprecedented partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers.”

AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario said the steel-workers union has been pushing for this rule for decades.

“This have been a very long time coming,” she said. “Hopefully, this proposal that was recommended by a major union will move forward at a relatively faster speed and be finalized by this administration."

The United Steelworkers union did not respond to requests for comment.

The Labor Department said the majority of workers exposed to beryllium are in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing and dental lab work.

“The proposed rule would not cover some workers exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials, including those employed at coal-burning power plants and aluminum production facilities, and those performing abrasive blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyards industries,” the agency said.

OSHA is however asking the public to comment on whether these workers should be covered by the final rule.  

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register on Aug. 7, the public has until Nov. 9 to submit written comments.