Beryllium: Its Application And Risks

Beryllium is a unique metal. One of the lightest elements on the periodic table, beryllium improves many physical properties when it is added in small amounts to alloys of copper, aluminum or nickel. Beryllium imparts high rigidity, thermal stability and thermal conductivity – making it ideal for uses where weight is critical. A beryllium-copper alloy is very hard and lightweight and does not create sparks when it strikes a steel surface. In fact, adding just 2% beryllium to a copper alloy increases its strength six-fold. As a result, it has found multiple uses in the defense and aerospace industries for applications such as missiles, spacecraft and satellites. More recently, beryllium has been used in electronic switches and components and even sporting goods, such as high-end golf clubs and bicycles, where power to weight is an advantage. Sound too good to be true?

Dangers of Beryllium Exposure

Beryllium, however, is extremely toxic when mishandled. Exposure to the dust by breathing, skin contact or ingestion can cause a sensitization immune response and can lead to Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD), a debilitating progressive respiratory illness for which there is no cure. The disease causes the formation of nodules in the deep lung region, impairing the ability of the lung to expand and oxygenate the blood. As a  result, all organs that require oxygen to function suffer.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that approximately 62,000 workers are potentially exposed to beryllium in 7,300 workplaces. In addition to  exposure at work, “second-hand” exposure can take place when dust is tracked on shoes and equipment into exposure-free areas as well as to family members exposed to dust from contaminated work clothing. The majority of these employees work in the defense  industry and the Department of Energy (DOE, formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) has been studying the adverse health effects of beryllium since the 1940s.

Understanding the Risks

Since 1998, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Brush-Wellman (now  Materion), the single largest domestic producer of beryllium, have worked together on health effects and best work practices. The goal has been to better understand the risk factors for persons working with beryllium. Their research indicated that beryllium sensitization can occur even when exposure is very low – pointing to the need not only for a very low exposure limit, but also for work practices, protective equipment and most importantly, engineering controls.

Many firms that handle beryllium have long understood the health risks associated with exposure and took steps such as establishing restricted work areas in combination with clean rooms; dedicated clothing and shoes; full-face and powered air purifying respirators; use of ventilated “glove boxes” where workers handle parts inside sealed enclosures; routine medical monitoring; and much more.

Exposure Limits

The original OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) was 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a  working day, and has been unchanged since its adoption in 1971. By comparison, DOE established a CBD prevention program in 1999 and, as part of that program, required all contractors to adopt an exposure limit of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air – one-tenth that of OSHA. In 1998, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) also adopted the 0.2 micrograms limit.

In 2002, OSHA began work on a revised standard. That standard was issued in late 2016, fourteen years (and two presidents) after work began. The final rule reduced the PEL to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over eight hours, consistent with DOE and ACGIH. It also established a short-term limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter for periods up to fifteen minutes.

Recently, the standard was temporarily put on hold pending further “review” – with implementation delayed until May 2017. The standard requires employers to use engineering controls and work practices to limit exposure, as well as to develop workplace-specific exposure control plans and to provide medical monitoring. Most elements of the standard are currently scheduled to go into effect March 2018; while the requirement for change rooms and showers is effective March 2019 and those for engineering controls in March 2020.

HETI…Helping Manage Risk

HETI offers a staff of experienced environmental and industrial hygiene professionals with proven capabilities to deal with a full range of risk control issues. We are familiar with the beryllium standard and have worked with firms to establish safe worker programs – including air and dust monitoring, as well as risk evaluation. HETI has the experience and technical expertise to assist with hazard recognition, monitoring, and control development to reduce the risk of particulate and contaminated dust.