By Sam Pearson
Federal researchers are unlikely to step in to resolve a dispute over the beryllium content of glass and coal slag abrasives, a top official with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health said.
Abrasives are used by shipbuilders and other manufacturers to prepare surfaces for painting or applying coatings, among other functions. Those derived from coal slag contain beryllium, a toxic metal regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to limit airborne exposure to workers.
Makers of glass abrasives say their products don’t contain beryllium, a claim that producers of the competing coal slag alternatives dispute. A consulting firm retained by the coal slag abrasives industry published a report in January saying just the opposite—that glass abrasives contain beryllium and should be subject to OSHA exposure limits, just like their coal-slag competitors.
In response to the report, Democratic staff members on a House committee asked NIOSH to look into these competing claims and confirm if the coal slag industry’s position is valid.
Questions about the study come as abrasives makers are jockeying for market position amid a tighter OSHA standard for beryllium (RIN:1218-AB76) issued by the Obama administration in early 2017 being implemented. OSHA’s actions may influence how users of abrasives make purchasing decisions.
NIOSH “would be wasting resources” to attempt to corroborate the industry’s position by conducting new bulk content analysis and comparing it with airborne samples, Frank Hearl, the institute’s chief of staff, told Bloomberg Environment. Hearl said this type of examination was best left to abrasives producers.
In 1998, NIOSH studied airborne exposure levels generated by glass abrasives use, through a contract with the engineering consulting firm KTA-Tator Inc. in Pittsburgh. The glass abrasives tested in the study triggered exposure concentrations exceeding OSHA’s action level, but some questions have been raised about its methodology.
The coal slag abrasives industry, which manufactures abrasives from a byproduct of coal that contains naturally-occurring beryllium, has fought the 2017 beryllium rule, calling it unnecessary and impractical for abrasives users.
The Abrasives Blasting Manufacturers Alliance, in a study released Jan. 12, found that samples of crushed glass abrasives from major manufacturers and distributors all contained beryllium, as well as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. The ABMA represents companies such as Abrasives Inc., Canam Minerals Inc., Ensio Resources Inc., Harsco Metals & Minerals, Mobile Abrasives Inc., MineralTech Gulf Coast Abrasives LLC, and US Minerals Inc.
The study showed that claims glass abrasives are a safe alternative that pose no hazard to workers are “utterly and completely false,” the ABMA said in a statement when the report was released.
Some Democrats and unions challenged the study, conducted by the consulting firm Exponent Inc., saying its conclusions are inaccurate because they are based on the bulk content of beryllium in the glass abrasives. The conclusions didn’t consider airborne emissions that OSHA inspectors would check, they say.
Abrasives users should rely on airborne exposure tests in the workplace when making decisions about which type to use, Hearl said. The tests are a better option than relying on analyses like the Exponent test of the beryllium bulk content of glass abrasive feedstocks, he said.
But, Mark Mummert—an industrial hygienist for Harsco Corp. a producer of coal slag abrasives and a member of the ABMA—told Bloomberg Environment that NIOSH’s own research showed such tests could be difficult for employers. One study of three air sampling methods in 2013 found they “are not effective in assessing employee exposures during abrasive blasting” because of high failure rates in the filters used.
In a statement to Bloomberg Environment, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said the agency’s decision was appropriate. Scott is the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee whose staff asked NIOSH look into the matter.
The research agency is facing $138 million in fiscal 2019 funding cuts proposed by the White House, a decline of about 40 percent from enacted fiscal 2017 levels.
It would be “a waste of NIOSH’s limited resources to duplicate the coal slag industry-sponsored laboratory analysis,” Scott said, “because even if the study were conducted by a neutral party, it does nothing to inform real world risks to abrasive blasting workers from alleged beryllium in recycled glass.”
Scott said his office would work with NIOSH to “to identify credible workplace exposure data using various abrasive blasting materials, including recycled glass in industrial settings.”
Last year, the Trump administration proposed keeping the new exposure limits but eliminating record-keeping and medical monitoring requirements for the construction and maritime sectors.
Coal slag abrasive producers want OSHA to go further by scrapping the standard entirely for those sectors.
Makers of glass abrasives say companies can use their products without exposing workers to beryllium at levels requiring action under the new OSHA standard, while companies that make coal slag abrasives say the benefits of using glass abrasives are overstated.
In public comments filed on the proposed rule in 2015, the ABMA contended that it is difficult to test for airborne beryllium at such low levels and that OSHA had not shown that abrasives workers could develop health problems from beryllium.
The industry hopes OSHA will “take us out, and we will have this behind us,” Mummert said. That way “the entire abrasives blasting industry will not be subject to this rule, which is really not needed,” he added.
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