Beryllium is a rare earth metal used in metalwork, electronics manufacturing and the nuclear energy sector. When inhaled, it is known to cause cancer or other diseases, including berylliosis, an incurable and possibly fatal lung disease.

The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium has not been updated since it was first adopted decades ago. Ten years have passed since Public Citizen first petitioned OSHA to reduce the PEL of beryllium from its current level of 2 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 0.2 ug/m3 to better protect workers.

“The current standard is based on an analysis conducted more than 60 years ago; it is outdated and does not protect the health of workers,” said Justin Feldman, Public Citizen’s worker health and safety advocate. “The U.S. Department of Energy realized this when, in 2000, it enacted a standard of 0.2 ug/m3 in all its facilities. OSHA has yet to follow suit.”

According to Public Citizen, tens of thousands of workers have been exposed to beryllium at levels 10 times higher than what is allowed for DOE workers because OSHA has not acted on the issue in a timely manner.

Falling Behind

Beryllium remained listed in the pre-rule stage on OSHA’s Spring 2011 regulatory agenda. Last year, upon the release of the Spring 2010 agenda, OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels explained that beryllium “presents a number of unique and complex scientific challenges” but added that the agency was “moving forward aggressively” on the issue. OSHA conducted a complete peer review in November 2010.

Public Citizen, however, points out that OSHA has made little to no progress on this issue in the last year. An economic peer review was supposed to be completed by May 2011 but OSHA has fallen behind its schedule.

“It is unacceptable that, with more than 30,000 workers’ lives potentially at stake, the agency is taking far too long to conclude its review,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, a health researcher with Public Citizen.

Public Citizen stressed that OSHA must move more quickly to complete its analysis and issue a final rule that brings its standard in line with current evidence.