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Beryllium Broadside: Obama’s Last-Minute Rule-Making Will Cost Jobs

Ike Brannon

Few people are aware of (or care about) the role that beryllium
plays in people’s lives, but a last minute, unexpected expansion of
a workplace rule regulating it may push numerous people out of a
job.

Beryllium is an extremely light metal that forms a strong alloy
when combined with various other metals. It is a key material in
the construction of spaceships and satellites, as well as other
items that must be able to withstand potentially high
pressures.

It is also potentially harmful to humans if ingested in
sufficient quantities. While few people receive any exposure to the
element (which is quite rare) in their day-to-day lives, people who
work in industries that use beryllium may be exposed to dust
containing particles of the metal.

Excessive regulation
imposes real costs on society.

In 2012 the Obama administration announced that it was
contemplating reducing the already-low exposure standards for
industrial workers, and 2015 OSHA proposed a rule to limit worker
exposure to beryllium beyond current standards. The proposal
targeted the industries and production procedures that created the
greatest risk of exposure, such as the manufacture of beryllium
alloy.

The rule explicitly precluded workers exposed to extremely low
levels of airborne beryllium, such as those performing abrasive
blasting work with coal slag in the construction and shipyards
industries. The logic for excluding construction and maritime work
from the OSHA rule was that the benefits of the rule covering those
industries appeared to be rather slight compared to the anticipated
compliance costs. Such industries already take stringent measures
to prevent workers from being exposed to potential toxins, which
includes beryllium. Abrasive blasting in particular is already
subject to over two dozen OSHA rules governing worker safety,
including preventative measures to avoid undue exposure to airborne
chemicals.

The various entities who stood to be impacted by the revised law
— the workers and their labor unions, manufacturers, and
other interested parties — offered comments on the proposed
rule over the following year. However, during that time the
administration offered little indication that it would
significantly alter the proposed rule, and the industries most
likely to be impacted had begun contemplating the its impact of the
new rule on their operations.

However, when the final rule was finally issued, less than two
weeks before the end of Barack Obama’s term, the scope had been
unexpectedly widened to include those previously exempted
industries.

While the administration felt no apparent compunction about
making a radical last minute change, it did feel obliged to offer
some direction to companies affected by the expansion of the new
rule, and how they might manage to adjust their operations in a
cost-effective way. One potential approach to mitigate worker
exposure, it averred, would be to simply automate their operations
so that the production process involves fewer people.

While that may seem to be a common-sense recommendation for an
administrative body, it’s a politically tone-deaf, potentially
counterproductive suggestion.

This avowed capitalist gives no truck to protests against the
general mechanization of society today, which has led to a
resurgence of luddism in certain quarters. The rapid technological
advances of the last two centuries have led to an enormous
improvement of productivity that has greatly expanded our standards
of living across the income distribution.

However, the government’s explicit direction that companies
automate in the name of protecting workers against a potential
health hazard that would likely not survive an honest cost-benefit
analysis is not the path to increased prosperity.

While it may not seem intuitive to most people, excessive
regulation imposes real costs on society — the minimal safety
gains that the last-minute extension of the enhances beryllium
standards will do little to improve the safety of workers while
costing the economy thousands of jobs.

The Trump administration has stayed the enactment of the beryllium rule,
along with various other last-minute regulations enacted by the
Obama administration. It would do well to reexamine the rule and
its last-minute modifications and ensure that those changes past a
stringent cost-benefit test.

Ike Brannon is
a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute and president of Capital
Policy Analytics.