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OSHA slashes permissable beryllium exposure limits

Beryllium is used at a variety of manufacturing facilities in Ohio and around the country because it is lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel. The gray metal is highly resistant to oxidation and is included in many nickel, iron copper and aluminum alloys, but it is also extremely toxic. Exposure to even tiny amounts of beryllium can cause serious respiratory illnesses including chronic beryllium disease, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced that the permissible exposure limits for the metal will be drastically reduced.

According to OSHA, the old 8-hour PEL of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air was based on studies performed decades ago. The new rule, which was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 9, reduces acceptable beryllium levels to just .02 micrograms over an eight hour period. OSHA has also introduced a short-term limit of 2.0 micrograms and stricter training, protective equipment and medical examination requirements.

Employers will be given ample time to comply with the new rules. Most of the provisions must be met within 12 months, but companies will be given an extra year to install changing rooms and showers. The required engineering controls must be implemented within three years. According to OSHA, the new beryllium standards will save the lives of more than 90 American workers each year.

Employers are often reluctant to admit that workers have become sick because they were exposed to toxic substances in the workplace, and they often assert that the illnesses stemmed from other sources. When these kinds of workers' compensation claimsare successful, it could open the door for other sick workers to file claims of their own. Attorneys with experience in this area could anticipate resistance when representing workers who have developed work-related illnesses, and they may compile medical and scientific research to counter any arguments made by employers during workers' compensation hearings.

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