In 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule limiting the use of beryllium in construction, shipyards and general industrial settings. Ever since, beryllium has dominated dialogues among safety managers and blasting contractors—and for good reason. Beryllium exposure can lead to lung cancer and other serious health conditions. Traces of beryllium are found in metal slags, putting North American workers directly in harm's way with every breath.
Which abrasives contain beryllium? Does your abrasive's trace level fall within OSHA guidelines? Here's a quick list of the most common questions we hear about beryllium in abrasive blasting, paired with definitive, data-driven answers.
Before we dive into the data, let's take a closer look at beryllium itself. A strong yet lightweight metal, beryllium is widely used in industries ranging from aerospace to defense. Heralded for its corrosion resistance and electrical and thermal conductivity, beryllium is classified as a strategic and critical material by the U.S. Department of Defense. In abrasive blasting, traces of beryllium can be found in coal slags.
Despite its importance as an industrial material, beryllium also presents well-document health risks. It is classified as a Class 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and has been the focus of a decades-long effort by OSHA to protect American workers. After first sounding the alarm on beryllium in 1975, OSHA released its long-awaited beryllium rule in 2017. This replaced its permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium with more rigorous standards that directly impact the industrial coatings industry.
On average, waste slag abrasives produce 6 times the beryllium exposure levels permitted by OSHA.
The OSHA beryllium rule is backed by a proven body of research into beryllium's health risks. In addition to its IARC classification, beryllium is also considered a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Beryllium dust in a work setting has been linked to both lung cancer and Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD), a serious lung condition that can continue to progress long after a worker stops being directly exposed to beryllium.
The OSHA beryllium rule contains standards for construction, shipyards and general industrial use. In abrasive blasting, the primary exposure comes from waste slags, which contain traces of beryllium that are released into the air as dust. OSHA's new limit for beryllium is 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air, averaged over eight hours. Its short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 2.0 µg/m3 over a 15-minute period.
The OSHA regulations also outline specific requirements for employers:
Because slags are the waste product of burning coal and/or producing metals, they inherently include metals. One of these metals is beryllium. Coal slags can often contain traces of beryllium up to 0.1% by weight. Because they shatter on impact during blasting, the levels of toxic metals released into the air can greatly exceed the highest legal levels. In respirable blast testing, coal slag abrasives have produced up to six times the beryllium exposure levels permitted by OSHA.
Garnet abrasives can contain trace amounts of beryllium, which occurs naturally in rocks, soil, coal, oil and volcanic dust. However, the traces of beryllium in garnet abrasives are well below the OSHA limits. When GMA tested six waste slag products, they produced an average of 1.2469 mg/kg of beryllium. That's 53 times higher than the beryllium content in a bag of GMA Garnet™, which comes in at an average of 0.0234 mg/kg.
Because garnet has low friability, it also produces very little dust when compared with waste slag abrasives. This minimizes the risk of exposing blasting contractors and other workers to beryllium dust.
(Want to take a deeper dive? Read our blog post on garnet abrasives vs. waste slags.)
OSHA requires employers to provide respirators when controls fail to adequately limit beryllium exposure. However, respirators must be properly fitted, and worn consistently, in order to be effective. It's also important to consider the impact of nearby workers. When blasting with waste slag, dust can quickly contaminate large areas of a facility. This puts other trades, which likely lack proper beryllium protection, at a significant risk.
There's no denying that OSHA's beryllium ruling has caused some confusion, and even a bit of skepticism, in the industrial coatings industry. But given the well-documented risks of beryllium dust, safety managers and contractors have a clear choice: exposure their workers to significant health risks or leave behind waste slag.
With GMA Garnet™, blasting teams get the best of both worlds: a cleaner, safer abrasive that's proven to outperform waste slags.
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