The head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said yesterday that the federal exposure limit designed to protect thousands of American workers from beryllium disease is not working.
''It is very clear to me that at our current exposure level, people are being made ill and contracting a fatal disease,'' Charles Jeffress said.
He said his agency is studying whether to tighten the beryllium safety standard - one of several steps the safety agency is taking to combat the chronic lung disease that has affected scores of workers locally and nationwide.
Mr. Jeffress called beryllium disease ''a particularly hazardous, particularly worrisome problem in the workplace.''
''It is one of our high priorities,'' he said.
Beryllium is a hard, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, electronics, and telecommunications industries. When the metal is manufactured or machined and the resulting dust inhaled, workers often develop a lung disease for which there is no cure.
Researchers estimate 1,200 documented cases of beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s. Fifty current or former workers have contracted the illness at the Brush Wellman, Inc., beryllium plant outside Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.
Mr. Jeffress said that OSHA decided in December to review the safety standards for about two dozen substances, including beryllium. Part of the beryllium review will include a study to provide basic information that has eluded health officials for years: Which industries use beryllium? How is it being used? How many workers are exposed?
For example, no one knows how many workers potentially are exposed to beryllium dust. Estimates range from 30,000 to 800,000.
Mr. Jeffress said his agency will soon let a contract for this study.
He said recent publicity surrounding beryllium disease has helped his agency focus attention on the deadly metal.
A series by The Blade, published March 28 through April 2 and titled ''Deadly Alliance,'' detailed a decades-long pattern of the U.S. government putting beryllium production and costs ahead of worker safety.
Among the findings: The government and the beryllium industry risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium.
As a result, dozens of workers contracted beryllium disease, an illness that proves fatal about one-third of the time.
Mr. Jeffress said he will not comment on those findings. But he said that after the series was published, the safety agency held internal meetings to discuss what more can be done to educate workers about the hazards of beryllium. Those talks continue, he said, and no decision has been made on any action.
And he said it is unclear when the agency might decide whether to propose tightening the exposure limit.
OSHA's limit is 2 micro grams of beryllium dust per cubic meter of air - equivalent to the amount of dust the size of a pencil tip spread throughout a six-foot-high box the size of a football field.
Mr. Jeffress said recent research shows that even this small quantity is causing workers to get sick.
In February, two leading beryllium researchers wrote to Mr. Jeffress to tell him that workers were contracting the disease ''well below'' the safety standard, OSHA records show.
''We know that the current regulatory level is not protecting workers from developing disease,'' wrote Dr. Lee Newman and Margaret Mroz of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.
Mr. Jeffress pointed out that the U.S. Energy Department is studying whether to lower the exposure limit at federally owned sites. He said energy officials' decision would likely influence the safety agency's actions.
Only once in 50 years has the federal government tried to lower the limit for beryllium. That was in 1975, when OSHA proposed cutting it in half.
But as reported in The Blade series, safety regulators ran up against an overwhelming alliance: the beryllium industry and the defense establishment. In the end, the safety plan died.
Mr. Jeffress said he has not heard of such opposition to the safety agency's recent efforts.
America's leading beryllium producer is Brush Wellman, which has headquarters in Cleveland and 2,200 employees worldwide, including 650 at the Elmore plant.
A message left yesterday for Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes was not returned.
Theresa Norgard, a Manitou Beach, Mich., resident and one of the area's advocates for beryllium victims, called OSHA's actions ''a good first step.''