Construction and Shipbuilding Companies Will Get a Pass on Protecting Workers from Beryllium Exposure
The agency that is supposed to protect workers wants to make it easier for construction and shipbuilding businesses to continue poisoning their employees and workers’ families with a toxic metal that causes fatal lung diseases.
Construction and shipbuilding businesses wouldn’t have to meet basic public health standards such as providing protective clothing and equipment or testing workers for illnesses caused by beryllium under a new proposal from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Businesses in other industries would have to meet the stricter standards.
The metal produces toxic dust when it is cut or sanded.
Companies with the laxer regulations are expected to save an average of $957 for each of the estimated 11,486 employees who are exposed to beryllium or about $11 million. The OSHA proposal would keep a new standard set under former President Barack Obama that generally lowers beryllium exposure for workers, but Trump is removing public health standards for construction and shipbuilding companies.
People have 60 days to comment on the proposal, and there may be a public hearing.
Beryllium causes lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease, named after the deadly metal, which slowly damages the lungs and kills about 100 people a year. Authorities have known for decades how toxic the metal is but prize beryllium, especially in the defense industry, where it is used to make nuclear weapons.
Construction workers are often exposed to it in abrasive blasting, when a high-velocity stream of various gritty materials is used to prepare a surface for paint or some other type of coating. When the surface is metal and rust needs to be removed, the gritty material is often coal slag, a glassy, granularized byproduct of burned coal. Coal slag contains traces of beryllium.
“People live with the terrible suffering of not being able to breathe, having chronic coughs, having the terrible fatigue that comes with chronic beryllium disease,” said Dr. Lee Newman, a beryllium researcher. “It’s a very slow, wasting lung disease.”
In March, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, wrote to Edward Hugler, then the acting Labor Secretary, to complain about what Byrne called “a midnight rule.”
“The agency must swiftly rein in the impermissible overreach,” Byrne wrote.
Byrne’s home state of Alabama is also home to Austal USA, a shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy. Austal USA donated $5,300 to Byrne’s last congressional campaign. Huntington Ingalls Industries, which operates the largest U.S. shipyard, gave $10,000.
Studies have found that even short-term exposures below the new limit can lead to chronic beryllium disease. Regulations for beryllium were originally supposed to take effect In March, but that was delayed twice until Trump’s OSHA proposed watering down the regulation.
Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have asked the inspector general of the Labor Department to investigate why the regulation was delayed and whether lobbyists had improper influence. The Labor Department had studied new regulations for beryllium for 15 years.
“The final rule is a carefully considered, overdue protection for workers who put their lives at risk for their paychecks,” the senators wrote.
Featured photo: Metropolitan Consulting Engineering & Forensics