While beryllium is critical in many applications, including national defense, it can cause a chronic and sometimes fatal disease of the lungs. Studies have also shown beryllium to cause cancer. The current permissible exposure limit is the lowest for any common metal, but it is widely acknowledged to be too high, USW and Materion Brush contend. Their recommended standard would lower the exposure limit by 90 percent.

USW and Materion Brush worked together for years to agree on this recommendation.

"This was a 2-year negotiation, but it wasn't some sort of give and take," said Michael Wright, USW Health, Safety and Environment Department director. "Rather, it was a mutual search for feasible measures that would best protect workers. We worked through many disagreements, but worker health was always the goal for both parties."

The recommended standard also would require feasible engineering controls in any operation that generates any beryllium dust or fume, even those which meet the exposure limit. Furthermore, it contains provisions for medical surveillance, including a new technique for the early detection of lung cancer; earnings protection for workers removed from exposure; information and training, and exposure monitoring.

The draft standard is only a recommendation, and OSHA cannot defer its rulemaking authority to any outside party. Even so, Wright expressed hope that the recommendation "can greatly reduce the time necessary to get a new regulation in place."

"Beryllium workers deserve all the protections of a strong, enforceable standard," Wright said.

Materion Brush, the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal, accounts for more than half of the beryllium alloys and compounds produced in the United States. USW represents workers who manufacture beryllium alloys and beryllium-containing products in a number of industries.