Remarks prepared for delivery by
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels
Press Teleconference on Proposed Beryllium Rule
August 6, 2015
2 p.m. ET
Good afternoon. I am Dr. David Michaels at OSHA, and I want to thank you for joining me for this important announcement.
Today we are taking a long-overdue step toward protecting workers from harmful exposure to beryllium, a widely-used material that can cause devastating lung diseases.
We are proposing to dramatically lower the amount of beryllium allowed in the air that workers breathe. The current allowable amount was set in 1971 based on research from the 1940s, before the risks of long-term exposure were understood. We have known for decades that the allowable exposure levels for beryllium are inadequate.
There are many reasons to feel good about this proposal for a new rule, which will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. I'd like to highlight two points that are most significant:
First, this rule will save lives and reduce suffering. We estimate that, each year, it could prevent almost 100 deaths and 50 illnesses, including cases of the debilitating, incurable illness known as chronic beryllium disease. Overall, it would apply to about 35,000 workers in general industry.
Second, I want to recognize that we are able to make this announcement today because of a historic collaborative effort between industry and labor.
It is noteworthy that the nation's primary beryllium product manufacturer, Materion, and the United Steelworkers union, which represents many of those who work with beryllium, agreed that greater protections were needed. Together, they created a framework for moving forward with a rule and brought it to OSHA in 2012.
At the time, we were already hard at work on a beryllium standard. Our rulemaking professionals formally asked for public input on the subject in 2002, and in the following years, they visited worksites, performed risk assessments, and calculated potential impacts on small businesses.
But the joint proposal from Materion and the Steelworkers gave our efforts new momentum and propelled us forward.
As Secretary of Labor Tom Perez remarked, "The proposal is strong because of unprecedented partnership between manufacturers and the United Steelworkers."
I am thrilled that we have Richard Hipple, CEO of Materion, and Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, on the phone with us today to underscore the significance of their efforts. Together, they have created a historic opportunity to protect the lives and lungs of thousands of beryllium-exposed workers.
We hope other industries where workers are exposed to deadly substances join with representatives of those workers to propose ways to reduce exposures prevent diseases and save lives.
Beryllium is an extremely useful material, light as aluminum but strong as steel. It is found in a wide range of products, from cell phones to satellites, and is an essential material for the defense industry. However, long-term exposure can also be deadly. The dangers arise when beryllium-containing materials are processed in a way that releases airborne beryllium dust, fume, mist or other forms.
In fact, to date, the Department of Labor has paid more than $500 million in compensation to nearly 2,500 former or current nuclear weapons workers who developed chronic beryllium disease after being exposed to beryllium.
However, workers are also exposed in the general workforce as well. The majority of worker exposures to beryllium today occur in operations such as foundry and smelting operations, machining, beryllium oxide ceramics and composites manufacturing, and dental lab work.
Our proposal would lower the eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter — a 90% reduction. The economic and technological feasibility of the proposal was carefully studied using extensive industry data.
The proposal includes other important requirements that are supported by both industry and labor groups. These include:
- Medical surveillance, which is crucial in identifying workers at risk of beryllium disease.
- Limiting access to high exposure areas to essential personnel
- Providing personal protective equipment
- Additional training
The proposed rule would not cover some workers exposed to trace amounts of beryllium in raw materials, such as 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. We are also seeking comment on the best way to protect these workers.
I invite you to read the proposal and related materials, which can be found through our website, at osha.gov. Written comments may be submitted until early November.
And now it is my pleasure to turn the call over to Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers.