At 58, retired machinist Bruce Revers is tethered to his oxygen machines — a wall unit when he’s at home, a portable tank when he’s out. The simple act of walking to the curb to pick up his newspaper is a grind.
“This is a hell of a thing to live with,” Revers, of Orange, Calif., said of his worsening lung disease. “There’s nothing I can do without my air.”
His undoing was beryllium, a light and versatile metal to which he was exposed in a Southern California factory that makes high-tech ceramics for the space, defense and automotive industries. His bosses tried to keep the place clean and well-ventilated, Revers says, and he wore a respirator to shield his lungs from the fine metallic dust. Nonetheless, he was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease in 2009.
He will not recover.
The federal standard in place to protect workers like Revers from beryllium is based on an Atomic Energy Commission calculation crafted by an industrial hygienist and a physician in the back of a taxi in 1949. For the last 12 years, an effort to update that standard has been mired in delay. A plan to address another toxic hazard — silica, a mineral that also damages the lungs — has been tied up even longer: 15 years.
The sluggishness is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s inability to act with urgency on well-known workplace hazards.
Beryllium, used in everything from missiles to golf clubs, threatens as many as 134,000 workers in the United States, according to government estimates. Silica, pulverized and inhaled by construction workers, foundry workers and miners, threatens more than 2 million. Obsolete exposure limits, dating to the early 1970s, are on the books for both substances.