What Every Welder Working For A Defense Contract Needs To Know About Beryllium


If you are a welder and your employer landed a contract with the federal government to produce parts for nuclear weapon production, you will likely encounter beryllium—which can be highly toxic in your work environment. Here are several important things to be aware of regarding beryllium and how to protect your health and your rights to compensation should you get sick. 

The properties of beryllium make it ideal for defense weapons

Beryllium is lighter than aluminum in weight yet stronger than steel. It has a high melting point and is transparent to X-rays, which makes it a preferred metal for use in the defense industry. In fact, the United States Department of Defense has classified beryllium as a strategic and critical material. There are three forms of this metal for usage in the industry: pure beryllium, berylia (beryllium oxide), and as an alloy with other metals. 

Beryllium is highly toxic when it's being processed

Processing beryllium in any way, particularly when welding or machining, will produce highly toxic dust, fumes, and mists that can get released into the air. While your employer is required to reduce the risks of exposure by installing various ventilation and control systems, there could still be a risk of exposure due to the highly toxic nature of beryllium and the close proximity of the compounds to your lungs as you weld the metal.

When beryllium compounds are breathed into the lungs, it can cause damage which can resemble pneumonia. At this point, the lung damage could heal if exposure is completely stopped and the lungs are allowed to repair themselves. However, prolonged exposure to beryllium could result in the body developing an immune system reaction as it becomes sensitive to the metal. This could lead to a chronic inflammatory reaction in the lungs (granuloma), which is called chronic beryllium disease. Essentially, a granuloma is the result of white cells encapsulating beryllium compounds within the lungs, which can make breathing extremely difficult. 

It's also important to understand that beryllium can adhere to clothing and get transferred to your vehicle and to the confines of you home. This could expose your family members to the highly toxic metal as well. This is called household contact. So you'll want to keep an eye on the health of your family members as well as they too could need to seek workers compensation benefits and medical care. 

Due to the health hazards, OSHA requires medical surveillance

Due to the health risks of those who work with beryllium, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide their workers with the ability to seek medical surveillance if they are at risk of exposure or have symptoms of a lung condition. An examination by a physician may also lead to the start of medical surveillance if the physician feels it is warranted.

The surveillance, which involves routine medical examinations and testing, must begin within 30 days of meeting one of the criteria. The medical surveillance is crucial as it could show proof of work-related medical issues that would result in workers compensation insurance coverage.

You will be covered under the Cold War Compensation Act

If you were to develop a medical condition due to beryllium exposure, you'll be covered by the Cold War Compensation Act, which is a workers compensation program for federal workers, contractors, and subcontractors.  This was put into place because many workers compensation programs previously did not provide for or cover those who were injured due to beryllium and possibly their household contacts.

If you and/or a family member begin to develop symptoms of beryllium exposure, particularly difficulty breathing, request a medical evaluation from your employer and call a workers compensation law office for more information about your rights. 


23 January 2017

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