OSHA issues last major workplace rule under Obama

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Friday finalized a long-awaited rule to limit workers’ exposure to beryllium, a substance known to cause cancer.

The regulation, which has industry support, is expected to be the last major workplace rule from OSHA under President Obama.

Exposure to dust particles from the lightweight metal — which is used in foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics, composites manufacturing and dental lab work — can bring severe health risks.


The final rule reduces the permissible exposure limit from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period.

The rule also establishes a short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a 15-minute sampling period.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) included shipyard and construction industries in its final rule, two sectors that were missing when it was first proposed in August 2015.

Labor groups had been pushing OSHA to not only extend its protections to cover more workers, but lower the exposure limit even further, to 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The final rule requires employers to provide workers a room where they can change in and out of their protective clothes and store equipment, as well as shower facilities.

OSHA estimates its rule will save the lives of 94 workers from beryllium-related diseases and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease a year.

“Outdated exposure limits do not adequately protect workers from beryllium exposure,” David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, said in a statement.

“OSHA’s new standard is based on a strong foundation of science and consensus on the need for action, including peer-reviewed scientific evidence, a model standard developed by industry and labor, current consensus standards and extensive public outreach.”

OSHA estimates the rule will cost employers $74 million a year. The benefits from the number of deaths and cases of cancer and lung disease prevented, however, is estimated to be $560.8 million a year.

Employers have one year to implement the new standards, two years to provide the required changing rooms and showers and three years to implement the required engineering controls.

United Steelworkers (USW) teamed up with Materion Corp.— one of the biggest beryllium metal producers — in 2012 and submitted model standards to OSHA.

Mike Wright, USW’s director of Health, Safety and Environment, said the union always believed shipyard and construction workers should be covered by the rule.

“To include them in the joint submission we would have had to include them in negotiations and that would have been difficult,” he said of the model standards USW sent to OSHA in 2012.

Because the rule was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration it faces the threat of being overturned by the new Congress and incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. 

Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers have 60 legislative days after a rule is finalized to repeal it by way of a resolution, which must then be signed by the president.  

Wright said a lot of steelworker union members voted for Trump and expressed hope the rule would stand.

“Many of our members voted for Trump, but none of them voted to make their workplaces less safe, none of them voted to see their friends and family members die from diseases like beryllium disease,” he said. “If the administration wants to keep faith with many people that put him in office, he’ll keep this rule.”

This story was updated at 12:51 p.m.

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