Black Lung

Black Lung
16 apr 2024 · 7 min. 23 sec.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has finally taken a significant step towards protecting the health and well-being of coal and other miners by introducing tough new safety rules...

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The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has finally taken a significant step towards protecting the health and well-being of coal and other miners by introducing tough new safety rules on silica dust exposure. This long-overdue action comes after a joint investigative reporting effort by NPR, Ohio Valley ReSource, Public Health Watch, Mountain State Spotlight, and Louisville Public Media exposed the hidden epidemic of severe, incurable, and fatal black lung disease among miners, as well as the ongoing overexposure to silica dust and the failure of regulators to respond for decades.
Silica, one of Earth's most abundant minerals, is about 20 times more toxic than coal dust and is commonly found in the quartz surrounding coal seams, particularly in central Appalachia. Exposure to silica dust can lead to silicosis, a debilitating and often fatal lung disease, as well as an increased risk of black lung disease, which has affected thousands of miners in recent years, including younger miners and those with more severe cases of the disease.
The new regulation, which was announced on Tuesday, will make the exposure limit to silica dust twice as restrictive as the current standard and will directly regulate exposure, allowing for citations and fines when miners are overexposed. This brings the silica exposure limits for miners in line with those that already apply to all other workers in the United States.
Under the new rules, mining companies will be required to monitor the air miners breathe while working and adjust working conditions when excess silica dust is present. Instances of overexposure must be reported to MSHA, a requirement that was added after the investigative reporting and complaints from mine safety advocates. The regulation also includes a health surveillance program with free periodic exams to detect early stages of silica-caused lung disease for metal/nonmetal mines (MNM), which have never had such requirements before.
The need for stricter regulation of silica dust exposure in mines has been evident for decades. Federal researchers had long urged MSHA to take action, but the agency had failed to impose new requirements, citing industry opposition. The joint investigative reporting by NPR and its partners documented more than 4,000 cases of severe or complicated black lung disease since 2010 and hundreds of deaths, highlighting the urgency of the situation.
Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su called it "unconscionable that our nation's miners have worked without adequate protection from silica dust despite it being a known health hazard for decades." Chris Williamson, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, emphasized that "no miner should ever have to sacrifice their health or lungs in order to provide for their family."
While the new regulation is a critical step towards protecting miners' health, some concerns remain. The agency's analysis of the potential impact of the regulation failed to take into account the thousands of cases of severe or complicated black lung that have already occurred, as documented by the joint investigative reporting. Instead, the agency predicted that the new regulation would prevent only 244 cases of disease and 63 deaths of coal miners over 60 years, a figure that was later revised to 325 cases of disease and 85 deaths.
There are also concerns about the implementation of the new regulation. Mining companies are being given time to adapt to the regulatory changes, with coal mines having a year to prepare and MNM mines having two years. The extensive and costly additions to the mining process required by the regulation, such as dust sampling and medical surveillance programs, could trigger challenges from the industry.
Moreover, most of the dust monitoring will be conducted by mining companies, not federal mine inspectors, which has raised concerns among some advocates. Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association, expressed her disappointment and distrust of the coal operators, stating, "I simply do not trust them." Debbie Johnson, a nurse at a black lung clinic in West Virginia whose husband suffers from advanced-stage disease, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that MSHA should play a more significant role in the testing process.
MSHA's resources are already strained, and Congress has denied a $50 million budget increase for more mine inspections and silica dust sampling. Some Republicans in Congress have even tried to prohibit MSHA spending for the implementation of the silica dust regulation, further complicating the agency's efforts to enforce the new rules.
Despite these challenges, the introduction of the new silica dust regulation is a monumental shift for MSHA and a crucial step towards protecting the health and well-being of miners. The National Mining Association, which represents mine operators, has expressed its support for the new, lower silica dust limits and has committed to working to improve the health and safety of miners.
Federal officials have vowed to take a hardline stance with any mining companies that fail to comply with the new requirements. Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, emphasized the critical role of unions and the government in holding mine companies accountable and protecting miners, even as coal jobs decline. "We're trying to save people's lives!" he shouted during the announcement of the new regulation.
The stakes are high for miners and their families, as Vonda Robinson, whose husband suffers from black lung disease, pointed out. "The miners need to have a healthy life mining coal," she said, "and not leave their family at a young age from dying from black lung disease and silica."
The introduction of the new silica dust regulation is a long-overdue and critical step towards protecting the health and well-being of miners. While challenges remain in terms of implementation, enforcement, and industry opposition, the regulation represents a significant shift in the approach to mine safety and a recognition of the urgent need to address the epidemic of black lung disease and silica-related illnesses among miners.
As the nation continues to rely on the hard work and dedication of miners to meet its energy needs, it is essential that we prioritize their health and safety above all else. The new silica dust regulation is a testament to the power of investigative journalism, advocacy, and the tireless efforts of those who have fought for decades to bring this issue to light and to secure the protections that miners so desperately need and deserve.
Moving forward, it will be crucial for MSHA, unions, and mine safety advocates to remain vigilant in ensuring that the new regulation is effectively implemented and enforced and that mining companies are held accountable for any violations or failures to protect their workers. Only by working together and maintaining a strong commitment to the health and well-being of miners can we hope to prevent the tragedy of black lung disease and silica-related illnesses from claiming more lives and devastating more families and communities.
The introduction of the new silica dust regulation marks a significant milestone in the fight for mine safety and workers' rights, but it is only the beginning. We must continue to push for stronger protections, better enforcement, and a culture of safety and accountability in the mining industry. The lives and livelihoods of miners and their families depend on it. Thanks for listening to Quiet Please. Remember to like and share wherever you get your podcasts
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