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Lowering just the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the toxic metal beryllium in the construction sector is one option being considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as publication of a proposed rule on general beryllium exposure nears, an OSHA official said on Dec. 6, 2013.
Tiffany DeFoe, an OSHA health scientist in the agency’s office of chemical hazards, previewed the range of options OSHA is weighing for its construction industry advisory committee. These include lowering the exposure limit for beryllium in construction from 2 micrograms per cubic meter down to anywhere from 1 microgram per cubic meter to 0.1 microgram per cubic meter.
Scheduled to be issued in April 2014, the proposed rules on beryllium exposure in general industry will likely differ from the construction standard. Existing OSHA construction standards safeguard workers from beryllium exposure by mandating that they use respiratory protection and personal protective clothing, but OSHA is still concerned about the health risks of chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and lung cancer, DeFoe said. CBD is a scarring of the lungs that can cause coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue.
“We feel that many of the provisions of the [general industry] rule may not be feasible or effective in a construction setting where we think it’s mainly abrasive-blasting workers who may be exposed,” she explained.
According to DeFoe, the PEL options being considered are 0.1, 0.2, 0.5 and 1 microgram per cubic meter. OSHA is also considering introducing a short-term exposure limit “to get some of those very high exposures under control.”
The United Steelworkers and the largest beryllium manufacturer in the country, Materion Brush, support a 0.2 microgram limit.
Another option the agency is mulling over is extending medical surveillance to the construction industry, including physical screening, testing for beryllium sensitization, and CT scans to detect lung cancer, DeFoe said.
The Center for Construction Research and Training, an arm of the AFL-CIO, recommends that employers test for airborne beryllium exposure if there is any risk present and substitute alternative products for any containing beryllium, if possible. The center also suggests that businesses provide exhaust ventilation and the proper respirators and gloves.
Construction Safety Update
Jim Maddux, OSHA’s director of construction, briefed the committee on the progress of agency initiatives relating to construction safety. He led off with the disturbing news that the number of fatalities in construction rose to 775 in 2012 from 738 in 2011. Falls were the leading cause of construction deaths in 2012, accounting for 269 fatalities.
“We’re seeing an increase in fatalities as construction work comes back from the recession; it’s something I’ve been dreading,” Maddux said. “As construction increases and new workers enter the industry and new employers form to do construction work, we need to make safety improvements now.”
Maddux said that OSHA is continuing to make progress on the confined-spaces standard for construction. The agency is also moving along with the economic analysis of a backover standard. Backover incidents occur when a vehicle backing up strikes a worker. More than 70 workers died from backover accidents in 2011.
“There’s still work to be done on cranes,” he said. In 2010, OSHA issued a final standard establishing requirements for cranes and derricks used in construction work. The standard requires employers to ensure that crane operators on construction sites are certified by November 2014. After the standard was issued, several industry groups informed OSHA of serious problems and limitations associated with the crane-operator certification, so the agency decided to address those problems through a separate rulemaking on operator qualification. Maddux said the proposed rule extending the crane-operator certification deadline until November 2017 will be issued by the end of the year.
The agency is also looking at crafting a detailed directive for OSHA compliance officers on how to cite various crane-standard violations.
Maddux informed the committee that OSHA will focus more on communication tower workers in 2014 because of the industry spike in fatalities this year. Fourteen communication tower workers died this year, more than the past two years combined. He speculated that the increase in fatal accidents was due to the telecommunications industry’s 4G overhaul, requiring new towers and antennae to be placed on existing towers.
Fall-Prevention Campaign Renewed
In other news, Maddux announced that OSHA will renew its collaborative fall-prevention campaign for 2014.
The agency has been working closely with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, trade associations, labor unions, employers, universities, community organizations and consulates to provide employers and workers with education and training on fall-prevention equipment and strategies.
“We feel like we’ve been very successful in getting a lot of eyeballs on this, a lot of Web traffic,” with 300,000 pieces of literature distributed and more than half a million page views, he said. “It has been an enormously popular campaign.”
The agency has logged 2,829 fall-prevention outreach activities since the campaign was launched, in April 2012. OSHA conducted 5,869 onsite consultation visits related to fall protection in construction, including 1,707 training sessions and 806 presentations.
The agency also created a fall-prevention Web page with detailed information on fall-protection standards, presented in English and Spanish.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
OSHA Publishes Plans for 2014, SHRM Online Safety & Security, December 2013
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