United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8888 gathered more than 1600 signatures on a petition calling for public hearings on proposed new regulations that weaken worker protections against the ill-effects of beryllium.
Local 8888, the largest union at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, gathered signatures on the petition in just two weeks.
The new beryllium regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from key protections in the proposed regulations.
Beryllium is a light yet strong metal that becomes toxic when its dust or fumes are inhaled even in small amounts. It causes a debilitating and, in some cases, deadly lung disease. It has also been linked to cancer.
For more than ten years, OSHA worked on new regulations that could protect workers from exposure to beryllium.
It finalized and issued the regulations in January, but the regulations were put on hold pending further study on order from President Trump.
After fewer than five months of study, OSHA drafted new regulations and announced in June that the public had until August 28 to submit written comments on the proposed regulations.
The new regulations kept many of the worker protections contained in the original regulations.
For example, the new regulations retained the same maximum allowable exposure levels–0.2 micro grams per cubic meter average per work day–as the original regulations.
But the new regulations exempted the shipbuilding and construction industries from other important protections.
For example, companies in the shipbuilding and construction industries will no longer be required to provide medical monitoring to workers who work with products containing beryllium.
Medical monitoring is important because there are no safe levels of beryllium exposure.
Because of the laws governing occupational safety and health regulations, OSHA can’t ban exposure to beryllium; it can only minimize exposure to it.
In the absence of a complete ban, monitoring worker exposure is essential because early detection of lung problems caused by beryllium can minimize its damage.
In the shipbuilding industry, substances containing beryllium are used in abrasive blasting operations to clean surfaces of ship hulls that need to be painted.
The proposed new rules will also exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from
- measuring beryllium levels at work,
- providing safety training to workers exposed to beryllium, and
- keeping records about its use on the job.
Rep. Robert Scott, a Democrat who represents Newport News, criticized the exemptions proposed by OSHA.
OSHA’s proposed new rules, wrote Scott in a letter to the Department of Labor, “has created two classes of workers exposed to beryllium–greater protections for those in general industry and inferior protections for those employed in construction and (shipbuilding),” wrote Scott.
When OSHA first proposed the exemptions in June, Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH) also criticized OSHA’s exemption.
“No matter where they work, US workers deserve protection from exposure to hazardous–and potentially lethal–toxic materials,” said Martinez.
“They need the same protections as other workers–including monitoring and assessing exposure to potential harm,” continued Martinez.
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, also criticized the exemption when it was proposed in June and blamed the Trump administration for taking a backward step on worker safety to appease corporate special interests.
“The result will be more debilitating lung diseases, cancers, and deaths for workers who are exposed to this highly toxic substance,” said Owens.
Even though the public comment period for the proposed exemption ended August 28, USW wants OSHA to hold public hearings on the proposal before it becomes final.
Local 8888 forwarded the petition to the USW headquarters in Pittsburg, which will then use the petition to convince OSHA to hold public hearings.
USW “will use the public hearings to make a strong case for shipbuilders to be covered by the new federal rule,” said Local 8888 in a message to members.
The overwhelming response to the petition by union members shows that safety concerns are “a big deal” to workers at the shipyard, said the union.