Beryllium

Overview

The element beryllium is a grey metal that is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Its physical properties of great strength-to-weight, high melting point, excellent thermal stability and conductivity, reflectivity, and transparency to X-rays make it an essential material in the aerospace, telecommunications, information technology, defense, medical, and nuclear industries. Beryllium is classified as a strategic and critical material by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2019, the U.S. produced 170 metric tons of beryllium domestically and imported 45 metric tons. Government stockpile release is another source of beryllium. Bertrandite (<1% beryllium) is the principal mineral mined for beryllium in the U.S. while beryl (4% beryllium) is the principal mineral mined for beryllium in the rest of the world.

Beryllium is used industrially in three forms: as a pure metal, as beryllium oxide, and most commonly, as an alloy with copper, aluminum, magnesium, or nickel. Beryllium oxide (called beryllia) is known for its high heat capacity and is an important component of certain sensitive electronic equipment. Beryllium alloys are classified into two types: high beryllium content (up to 30% beryllium) and low beryllium content (2 - 3% beryllium). Copper-beryllium alloy is commonly used to make bushings, bearings, and springs. Fly ash (a byproduct of coal-fired power plants) and various abrasive blasting materials, such as slags, garnet, silica sand, and crushed glass, may also contain trace amounts of beryllium (considerably <0.1% by weight).

Why is beryllium a hazard to workers?

Workers in industries where beryllium is present may be exposed to beryllium by inhaling or contacting beryllium in the air or on surfaces. Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that results in an individual becoming sensitized to beryllium. Individuals with beryllium sensitization are at risk for developing a debilitating disease of the lungs called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) if they inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized. Beryllium-exposed workers may also develop other adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease, and lung cancer. See the Health Effects section in the preamble of the Beryllium Final Rule for more information.

What must employers do to protect their workers from exposure to beryllium?

OSHA beryllium standards for general industry, construction, and shipyards require employers to implement protective measures for workers who are exposed to beryllium in their workplace. This site provides employers and workers with information on the beryllium standards, health effects of beryllium, and exposure evaluation and controls. For more detailed information, OSHA has published Small Entity Compliance Guides (SECG) for general industry and will soon publish SECGs for the construction/maritime industries.

Who is exposed to beryllium in the workplace?

OSHA estimates that approximately 62,000 workers are potentially exposed to beryllium in approximately 7,300 establishments in the United States, including approximately 12,000 workers the construction and shipyard industries. While the highest exposures occur in the workplace, family members of workers who work with beryllium also have potential exposure from contaminated work clothing and vehicles. Exposure data from OSHA’s Occupational Safety and Health Information System (OIS) identifies workers engaged in primary beryllium manufacturing and alloy production, and recycling as having the highest exposures to beryllium.

General Industry occupations with potential exposure to beryllium include:

  • Primary Beryllium Production Workers
  • Workers Processing Beryllium Metal/Alloys/Composites
    • Foundry Workers
    • Furnace Tenders
    • Machine Operators
    • Machinists
    • Metal Fabricators
    • Welders
    • Dental Technicians
  • Secondary smelting and refining (recycling electronic and computer parts, metals)
  • Abrasive Blasters

Construction and shipyard occupations with potential exposure to beryllium include:

  • Abrasive blasters and pot tenders
  • Laborers
  • Welders

Certain types of abrasive materials used in abrasive blasting operations may contain trace amounts of beryllium (<0.1% by weight), as may the surfaces being blasted. Due to the high dust conditions inherent in abrasive blasting operations, workers involved in these activities may be exposed to beryllium above its action level, in some cases.

Where is beryllium used?

End products1 containing beryllium and beryllium compounds are used in many industries including:

  • Aerospace (aircraft braking systems, engines, satellites, space telescope)
  • Automotive (anti- lock brake systems, ignitions)
  • Ceramic manufacturing (rocket covers, semiconductor chips)
  • Defense (components for nuclear weapons, missile parts, guidance systems, optical systems)
  • Dental labs (alloys in crowns, bridges, and dental plates)
  • Electronics (x- rays, computer parts, telecommunication parts, automotive parts)
  • Energy (microwave devices, relays)
  • Medicine (laser devices, electro-medical devices, X-ray windows)
  • Nuclear energy (heat shields, reactors)
  • Sporting goods (golf clubs, bicycles)
  • Telecommunications (optical systems, wireless base stations)
Health Effects

Exposure to beryllium via inhalation of airborne beryllium or skin contact with beryllium-containing dust, fume, mist, or solutions can cause health effects.

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Exposure Evaluation and Controls

These resources provide information on exposure limits and analytical methods used to evaluate workers’ beryllium exposure.

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OSHA Standards and Enforcement

Beryllium is addressed in OSHA standards for general industry, maritime, and construction.

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General Resources

This section provides useful resources and guidance materials for both employers and employees on Beryllium.

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1 This list describes end uses of products containing beryllium, not sources of beryllium exposure. Exposures to beryllium occur in the processing of beryllium-containing materials to produce these end products, not in the use of these end products in their finished form.