News Release


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 8, 1999

NEWS MEDIA CONTACT:
Jeff Sherwood, (202)586-5806

Richardson Announces Program to Prevent
Beryllium Disease Among Energy Department Workers

Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson today announced that the Department of Energy has put in place the strongest worker protection program in the world to prevent lung disease associated with exposure to beryllium. Under the program, all Department of Energy sites with potential beryllium exposure to workers will be required to put in place stricter controls to minimize that exposure and provide for early detection of disease.

"We worked aggressively to get this rule done very quickly because we want to provide strong protection for the workers who may be exposed to beryllium as the department dismantles and decommissions the facilities of the nuclear weapons complex," said Secretary Richardson. "Because of the involvement of workers, public health experts and other stakeholders in this process, we now have in place the toughest and most comprehensive protections in the world to prevent future cases of this terrible disease."

The new rule, published in today's Federal Register, establishes the Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program across the department. The rule takes effect on January 7, 2000. Contractors at Department of Energy sites with potential worker exposure to beryllium are required to submit a detailed plan to meet the rule's requirements within 90 days of that date. The rule is intended to prevent future cases of disease by minimizing the number of current workers who work with beryllium, minimizing levels of exposure and promoting early detection of disease through careful and comprehensive medical surveillance. All sites must be in full compliance with the new rule within two years.

The final rule sets out an "action level" that will trigger mandatory worker protection measures at 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air, stricter than the current exposure standard of 2 micrograms or the previously proposed action level of 0.5 micrograms. At this level, worker protection measures include: required use of respirators, increased workplace monitoring, formal programs to minimize worker exposure, isolating and restricting access to areas with beryllium, enhanced worker training and worker counseling and support.

Beryllium is a metal that has been used in many nuclear applications by the Energy Department and its predecessor agencies over the past 50 years, including nuclear reactor moderators or reflectors, fuel element cladding and in the production of nuclear weapons. Inhaling beryllium dust or particles can cause both Chronic Beryllium Disease, a recurrent, often disabling and sometimes fatal lung condition, and beryllium sensitization, where the worker's immune system becomes allergic to the presence of beryllium in the body. The disease often develops in individuals with sensitization. Symptoms of the disease and disability from the disease may not appear for 10 years or more after exposure.

An estimated 1,600 current workers may be exposed to beryllium at Energy Department sites, including Rocky Flats (Colo.), Oak Ridge (Tenn.), Los Alamos (N.M.) and Pantex (Texas). To date, DOE screening programs have identified 146 cases of Chronic Beryllium Disease among current and former workers.

Other objectives of the protection plan include:

  • Monitoring the health of "beryllium-associated" workers to ensure early detection of the disease and beryllium sensitization, prior to the development of Chronic Beryllium Disease. There have been surveillance programs for former and current beryllium workers. The new rule now covers any current worker who is exposed to beryllium or who had past exposure or potential exposure to beryllium at a DOE facility.

  • Collecting and analyzing monitoring and medical surveillance results to chart the effectiveness of the prevention program and to incorporate enhancements to the program.

A draft rule was published for comment on December 3, 1998. A number of changes were made as a result of public review of this draft, including: lowering the action level from 0.5 micrograms/cubic meter; establishing more explicit criteria controlling the release of beryllium-contaminated equipment; establishing greater confidentiality of personal records; providing that the contractor's physicians may recommend to workers that they be removed from work areas containing beryllium; providing benefits with alternative job placement if beryllium-related health problems are present; providing medical reviews in addition to those provided by the contractor; and providing general beryllium awareness training for workers outside beryllium areas.

New, tighter standards are already in place on an interim basis at DOE sites when the department began establishing measures in 1997 to better protect workers from beryllium exposure. Contractor managers at 14 sites in 10 states now have these interim prevention programs in place, which reduce the number of employees who work with beryllium and decrease levels of exposure to employees who may come in contact with beryllium on the job. Also part of these interim steps were comprehensive beryllium inventories and hazard assessments to ensure that workers not directly involved with beryllium and the public are not exposed.

In addition to the rulemaking, Secretary Richardson recently proposed legislation to establish a beryllium compensation program for Energy Department contractor workers who have already become sick with beryllium disease. Under the proposal, eligible workers would receive reimbursement for medical costs associated with the illness, disability benefits for lost wages and, where needed, job retraining assistance. Alternatively, workers with Chronic Beryllium Disease will have the option of receiving a single lump-sum benefit of $100,000.

Additional information and a copy of the rule are available on the DOE Beryllium Home Page at http://www.eh.doe.gov/portal.

- DOE -

R-99-320


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Updated: 12/08/99