Department of Labor Strengthens Mine Worker Protections in Fight Against Black Lung
by Justin Duncan, 4/25/2014
On April 23, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced new rules limiting the amount of coal dust that miners can be exposed to. The new standards, effective Aug. 1, are aimed at eliminating black lung disease caused by exposure to high amounts of coal dust.
According to the American Lung Association, breathing in coal dust particles scars and stiffens lung tissue. Over time, the lungs harden, making breathing more difficult. Black lung disease is incurable, untreatable, and often fatal. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 76,000 miners have died since 1968 as a result of the disease.
The Department of Labor’s new rules cut concentration limits for respirable (breathable) coal mine dust by 25 percent – from 2 milligrams per cubic liter of air to 1.5 milligrams – and increase the frequency of dust sampling in mines.
New requirements for dust sampling will ensure faster, more accurate results. Currently, the practice of averaging dust samples allows for miners on some shifts to be exposed to levels above the standard. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Kris Maher explains, “Under the [new] rules, when a monitor registers dust levels above the new standard, operators must lower the concentration of dust in the air—which could mean slowing production—and make respirators available to affected miners.”
The new exposure levels are the first revision in coal dust standards in over 40 years. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says new standards and the mandate for immediate action will eliminate loopholes that allow for overexposure. Benefits from avoided serious illness and death from disease are estimated by MSHA at $36.9 million a year, and the initial cost of the rule will amount to $592 per miner to implement, a sound investment in worker health.
Although the 1.5 milligram rule represents a move in the right direction for protecting the health of coal miners, the 2010 proposed rule had called for a more protective concentration limit of 1 milligram per cubic liter of air, a 50 percent cut from the old rule. Adopting the lower level included in the proposed rule would have provided additional health protections for miners.