OSHA Brings Sharper Focus to Battling Occupational Lung Disease

Construction workers, coal miners, foundry workers, and stone cutters inhale tiny bits of dust on a daily basis. The dust penetrates their lungs and over time their lungs scar over. This results in a broad range of health issues, including silicosis, pneumoconiosis (black lung), chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer. It may be decades before the effects of the dust inhalation are felt, but the U.S. Department of Labor is working to change that.

The U.S. Department of Labor is making progress toward reducing and preventing the occupational risks of cancer and other lung ailments. OSHA has proposed rules to better protect workers from the hazards of silica and beryllium. The silica proposal involves reducing the amount of dust in the air by wetting it down or vacuuming it up. Also, proper use of respirators can prevent workers from inhaling whatever dust is left in the area.  OSHA estimates that its proposed silica rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year, once the full effects of the rule are realized. Notably, the previous rule enforced 40-year-old permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica.

The beryllium proposal would dramatically lower the amount of beryllium allowed in the air that workers breathe. The current allowable amount was set by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, and adopted by OSHA in 1971. This was well before the risk of long-term exposure to beryllium was understood. The proposed standard would lower the eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, a 90 percent reduction.

The new beryllium proposal is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the identity of those who instigated the proposal. The nation’s primary beryllium product manufacturer and the United Steelworkers union approached OSHA to suggest the stricter standard. The joint effort between industry, labor and the government is thought to be unprecedented and possibly historic.



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