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OSHA drastically reduces allowable beryllium exposure levels

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that its decision to lower the permissible levels of beryllium exposure at workplaces in North Carolina and around the country will save 94 lives each year and prevent 46 workers from developing diseases related to the lightweight metal. Beryllium is popular in industrial sectors including energy production and electronics manufacturing because it is lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel, but it is also highly toxic and exposure to even tiny quantities have been linked with serious lung damage.

OSHA published its final beryllium rule in the Federal Register on Jan. 9. The rule reduces the amount of the toxic metal that workers can be exposed to during an eight hour shift from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air to just .02 micrograms. OSHA has also introduced a short-term exposure limit of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter of air. A representative of the federal agency said that the old PEL rules relating to beryllium were based on outdated science.

Employers will be required to comply with most of the provisions contained in the new standard within a year, but they will be given additional time to install showers and changing rooms and implement the required engineering controls. OSHA data indicates that about 62,000 workers at 7,300 workplaces in the United States are exposed to beryllium each year.

Employers may sometimes challenge workers’ compensation claims relating to illnesses caused by toxic substances in the workplace because of fears about a flood of similar claims being made in the future. Employers could also face civil litigation when their failure to adequately protect their workers from known or foreseeable dangers could be viewed as malicious. Attorneys with experience in this area could assist sick or injured workers with their workers’ compensation claims and advocate on their behalf should their employers allege that their illnesses or injuries were not related to their employment.

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