Trump administration reverses course on worker safety rule involving beryllium

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Trump administration has scrapped plans to roll back safety rules protecting construction and shipyard workers from exposure to beryllium, a toxic, carcinogenic element found in abrasive powders often used to remove rust and paint from ship hulls.

In a bulletin issued Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it will leave the protections in place for the construction and shipyard industries. The administration said it will develop a proposal to tailor the rule’s requirements “more appropriately” for the two industries.

“The proposed changes would maintain safety and health protections for workers, facilitate compliance with the standards, and increase cost savings,” the bulletin said. The Labor Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The protections were included in a sweeping rule issued in the final days of the Obama administration to limit workplace exposure to beryllium, a metallic element used in industrial operations, including the manufacturing of aircraft and nuclear weapons parts. The material also can be found in coal slag, a component of some of the abrasive powders used in construction and shipyard work.

OSHA estimated that 11,500 shipyard and construction workers are exposed each year to beryllium dust and predicted the new safety provisions would save four lives a year while costing the two industries about $1,000 per worker annually. But critics said workers in those environments already are protected by other OSHA safety measures, and said the costs to businesses were unfair.

In June 2017, the Trump administration moved to strike several components of the new rule. OSHA proposed to retain the beryllium exposure limits but exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from “ancillary provisions” requiring air quality testing and new workplace hygiene measures. The targeted provisions also mandated employee health monitoring for illnesses linked to beryllium inhalation, such as lung cancer and beryllium disease.

In a story published in January, Reuters described how the effort to weaken the beryllium rule was driven by a small industry – manufacturers of coal-based abrasive blasting grits. Using a modest lobbying campaign, industry representatives pressured allies in the administration and Congress to revisit the rule and suggested the rationale for killing the ancillary provisions for shipbuilding and construction.

(Read story here here)

The U.S. House of Representatives subsequently passed legislation meant to block any rollback of the construction and shipyard provisions. And OSHA, after taking public comment, concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the contention that other, pre-existing workplace safety rules would be sufficient. The provisions now are slated to take effect in September, 2020.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said Friday he was “relieved” by OSHA’s announcement.

Had the provisions been scrapped, “it would have marked the first time in history that the agency had weakened a health standard protecting workers from a known human carcinogen,” he said in a statement.

Reporting by Peter Eisler; Editing by Ronnie Greene