Labor Department Again Postpones Toxic Metal Protections
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Labor Department Again Postpones Toxic Metal Protections

Beryllium Kills 100 Workers a Year; 16 More Will Die While OSHA Dithers

Trump’s OSHA is still dragging its feet on a crucial matter of worker safety.

Tougher standards for workers exposed to the toxic metal beryllium, which slowly damages the lungs and kills about 100 people a year, have been delayed again.

New rules were developed under former President Barack Obama. They originally were supposed to go into effect in March 2017 and were pushed back to this month. The new standards are now scheduled to start May 11.

Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of Labor, said the two-month delay will kill 16 workers. “We don’t know who they are, or who their kids or spouses are,” Barab said. “But we do know that there’s no reason for them to die.”

In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed revoking basic public health measures for construction and shipbuilding businesses such as providing protective clothing and equipment or testing workers for illnesses caused by beryllium. Businesses in other industries will have to meet the stricter standards.

About 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium, including about 11,500 construction and shipyard workers. The lightweight, silvery metal produces toxic dust when it is cut or sanded.

ACTION BOX/What You Can Do About It

Labor Sec. Alexander Acosta

Call Labor Sec. Alexander Acosta at 202-693-6000 or write him at Secretary of Labor, S-2521, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20210.

Contact your senator or representative.

Public Citizen is one of the organizations working to raise awareness about beryllium. The nonprofit can be reached at 202-588-1000

Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of Labor, writes the newsletter Confined Space about workplace and safety issues with suggestions about what to do to protect workers rights.

Companies with the laxer regulations are expected to save an average of $957 for each worker exposed to beryllium or about $11 million.

The Abrasive Blasting Manufacturers Alliance opposes the tougher standard and spent $260,000 on federal lobbying last year.

OSHA said in a press release that the delay “will ensure that stakeholders are aware of their obligations, and that OSHA provides consistent instructions to its inspectors.”

The press release also said that OSHA “is considering technical updates” to the rule to “clarify and simplify compliance with requirements.”

OSHA is currently being led by Loren Sweatt, a deputy assistant secretary of Labor. Trump has nominated Scott Mugno, a FedEx vice president, to head the agency. A Senate committee sent Mugno’s nomination to the full Senate in January.

Beryllium is a key ingredient in making nuclear weapons. Triggers for the weapons, also called plutonium pits because they are near the center of warheads, were once made at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Beryllium is used to surround the pit in a shell to increase the force of the explosion. Production of the triggers was shut down in 2013 at the laboratory because of safety problems. A recent report from the Energy Department’s inspector general found that the Los Alamos National Laboratory failed to adequately keep track of beryllium, potentially exposing an unknown number of workers.

The Trump administration is considering building the triggers in a corner of anti-union South Carolina that is already one of the most contaminated places on Earth because of our country’s nuclear program.

March 8, 2018