Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, has criticized a rule to protect shipyard workers from a toxic mineral called beryllium. A top shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy, Austal USA, is in his home state of Alabama. Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal

President Donald Trump’s Labor Department has proposed scrapping key protections intended to protect shipyard and construction workers from exposure to beryllium, a toxic mineral that can cause deadly lung disease.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday that it would preserve a new limit for exposure to beryllium, which is 10 times lower than the previous standard. But the agency proposed eliminating new requirements for shipbuilding and construction industries to monitor beryllium levels, provide workers with medical testing for illnesses and provide protective equipment and clothing.

These industries and the public will now have the opportunity to submit comments to the agency on whether current standards sufficiently protect shipyard and construction workers performing tasks such as abrasive blasting.

The Trump administration had twice delayed the new lower allowable exposure limit, issued Jan. 9. Roughly 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium, a light and strong material used in industries such as defense, shipbuilding and aerospace, according to OSHA’s website. Each year, the new rule would prevent nearly 100 deaths and 50 serious illnesses, such as lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease, OSHA said when its new rule went into effect.

Then on Friday, OSHA proposed rolling back some of the new rules, saying they “may not improve worker protection and be redundant with overlapping protections in other standards.”

Another reason for the agency’s potential about-face? Concerns raised by the construction and shipbuilding industries and members of Congress, who had complained that they had not had a “meaningful opportunity” to comment as the new rules were being developed.

Among those critics was Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, whose state includes Austal USA, a top shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy. Austal and other top shipbuilders for the Navy and Coast Guard were the subjects of a recent Reveal investigation, which showed how they had received more than $100 billion in federal contracts despite serious safety lapses that had injured and killed workers.

At Austal in particular, dozens of workers have been injured by a power tool that the company’s top safety manager called a “Widow Maker.”  Byrne sent a letter in March to then-acting Labor Secretary Edward Hugler that assailed the application of the new beryllium standard to the construction and shipbuilding industries.

“The lack of medical and scientific support for the expansion of the beryllium standard to the construction and shipyard industries is troubling,” Byrne wrote.

Jordan Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary at OSHA under President Barack Obama, dismissed this assertion.

“There is plenty of evidence to cover shipbuilding and construction” with the new rules, he said. “There are plenty of places where the construction and maritime industries were invited to comment,” Barab said in a phone interview.

Labor leaders also slammed the agency’s proposal to ease the requirements.

“No worker should have to die from chronic beryllium disease,” said Michael Wright, director of Health, Safety and Environment for the United Steel Workers in a written statement. “The Administration has no business discriminating against any group of workers just because they happen to be in the wrong industry. We will vigorously oppose this cruel proposal.”

Democratic leaders in the Senate last month called for a federal investigation into the Labor Department’s policy delays, including that involving beryllium dust.  

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other senators asked the Labor Department’s inspector general to examine the rationale behind the agency’s decisions, and in particular, whether lobbyists improperly influenced the agency’s decisions.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.