The element beryllium is a grey metal stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum.

Its great strength-to-weight, high melting point, excellent thermal stability and conductivity, reflectivity, and transparency to X-rays make it an essential material in the aerospace, telecommunications, defense, computer, medical, and nuclear industries.

Health Risks

Unfortunately, workers in industries where beryllium is processed may be exposed to beryllium by inhaling or contacting beryllium in the air or on surfaces.

Inhalation or skin contact can cause an immune response that results in an individual becoming sensitized to beryllium.

Individuals with beryllium sensitization can develop a debilitating lung affliction called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) if they inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized.

Beryllium-exposed workers may also develop other adverse health effects, such as acute beryllium disease and lung cancer.

OSHA estimates that approximately 35,000 workers in general industry are potentially exposed to beryllium in approximately 4,088 establishments in the United States.

While the highest exposures occur in the workplace, family members of workers who work with beryllium also have potential exposure from contaminated work clothing and vehicles.

Two Proposals

Surprisingly, the two major government entities responsible for regulating Beryllium have taken significantly different stands on how its dangers should be addressed, particularly in terms of a permissible exposure limit.

The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed lowering the permissible exposure limit to 0.05 μg/m3.

OSHA’s proposed standards would lower the PEL to only 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

The DOE implemented an action level of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for its workers 17 years ago.

Because the comment periods for these proposals are ongoing, a final decision by either agency is unlikely before the election, further complicating the impact on companies and the workforce.