There are several steps precasters must take to protect workers from beryllium exposure and comply with OSHA’s final rule.
By Mason Nichols
In 2018, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began enforcing a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) for crystalline silica.1 The revised limit was well publicized as it halved the PEL from 100 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) to 50 μg/m3. However, an equally important OSHA final rule also went into effect in 2018 with less fanfare.
Beryllium, a lightweight metal that is most often used in the aerospace, electronics, energy and telecommunications industries, is also present in precast concrete operations.2 At a precast plant, multiple steps in the production process can lead to beryllium exposure. OSHA’s final rule reduces the PEL for beryllium by a factor of ten, from 2 μg/m3 to just 0.2 μg/m3, meaning it’s imperative for precast producers to understand both the operations that can lead to exposure as well as the steps to mitigate or eliminate the issue.
Exposure and health effects
According to Paul Mellon, director of government and regulatory affairs at Strategic Materials, abrasive blasting is the primary source of potential beryllium exposure at precast plants. Typically, this type of abrasive blasting is used to achieve a specific surface texture, such as on a wall panel or other above-ground piece.
However, any time abrasive blasting is performed, including blasting operations used for cleaning forms, the issue can arise. Exposure to trace levels of beryllium is also possible via other work performed at the plant, including welding.
Mellon has worked on the beryllium issue directly with OSHA for more than a decade and is considered the NPCA Safety Committee’s subject matter expert. Mellon shared that according to OSHA and safety data sheets, there are two known materials commonly used in abrasive blasting that contain beryllium – coal slag and copper slag. When either of these materials is used, special considerations must be made, as “high dust conditions inherent in abrasive blasting operations” may expose workers to dangerous levels.3 The following are the key provisions of the beryllium final rule:
- Establishes new, lower permissible exposure limit for beryllium of 0.2 μg/m3, averaged over 8 hours.
- Establishes new, short-term exposure limit for beryllium of 2.0 μg/m3, over a 15-minute sampling period.
- Requires employers to use engineering and work practice controls (such as ventilation or enclosure) to limit worker exposure to beryllium, provide respirators when controls cannot adequately limit exposure, limit worker access to high-exposure areas, develop a written exposure control plan, and train workers on beryllium hazards.
- Requires employers to make available medical exams to monitor exposed workers and provides medical removal protection benefits to workers with a beryllium-related disease.4
While the reduced PEL is currently in effect, the engineering controls portion of the rule remains in development. When complete, this part of the rule will identify specific approaches, such as ventilation or the use of an enclosure, to limit worker exposure.
For precast plants that do not take the appropriate measures to mitigate or eliminate exposure to beryllium, dire consequences may follow. OSHA states that “inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that results in an individual being sensitized” to the material. Those who exhibit this sensitization are then at risk for developing chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a serious pulmonary illness that could lead to death. Workers may also suffer from acute beryllium disease, which is a form of chemical pneumonia, or lung cancer.
Addressing the issue
OSHA’s primary method for handling any safety hazard comes directly from its hierarchy of controls.5 When it comes to beryllium, elimination or substitution remains the most effective approach control.
In situations where coal slag or copper slag is used, additional methods exist for ensuring the safety of team members and staying below the PEL. One of the most effective approaches is conducting abrasive blasting operations outdoors. This allows the dust and particles created during the process to disperse more readily, significantly lowering the danger for both the worker performing the blasting and the cleanup crew. Providing or enhancing ventilation systems is also effective.
“We conducted beryllium air sampling with industrial hygienists for our welders a few years ago and were below the PEL,” said Ruben Gallegos, environmental health and safety manager for Jensen Precast in Fontana, Calif. “Nonetheless, our welders have fume extractor systems at the point of operation as well as mechanical ventilation.”
Gallegos added that Jensen Precast’s rebar welders also work outside, where there is ample natural ventilation.
To further bolster worker protection, respirators can be used. According to Mellon, a form of standard protection for workers who are blasting is a blast hood, which has an assigned protection factor (APF)6 of 1,000 from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). But for members of the cleanup crew or individuals working in tight quarters, a recent change should be noted.
“Last summer, due to the beryllium rule coming out, NIOSH made a change in their recommendation for individuals who may be at or near the exposure limit,” Mellon said. “They are now calling for full-face respirators. That’s a big difference, because even with crystalline silica, NIOSH doesn’t require them.”
The dangers associated with beryllium – as well as the means by which it can enter the body – both contribute to the call for more stringent Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Unlike crystalline silica, beryllium that contacts a worker’s eyes or skin can potentially lead to sensitivity and eventually result in illness. This leads to the need for full-face respirators along with proper protection for the face and any exposed skin.
Compliance is key
Because the PELs for beryllium and crystalline silica are measured on the same scale, it’s easy to see just how dangerous exposure to beryllium can be when comparing the two final rules. The difference between 50 μg/m3 and 0.2 μg/m3 is significant, further emphasizing the need for precasters to identify potential exposures to beryllium and effectively mitigate or eliminate them according to the provisions of the final rule. Thankfully, there are many steps that can be taken to remain in compliance.
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.