Mine Safety Agency Ready to Finalize Black Lung Controls Pending White House Review

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently submitted for White House review a final rule to protect coal miners from black lung disease. Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a preventable but often deadly occupational disease contracted by prolonged inhalation of coal mine dust. Worker safety advocates hope these stronger controls on breathable coal mine dust, which have been years in the making, will be promptly reviewed and finalized.

Following the enactment of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, cases of black lung disease declined dramatically, but the downward trend stopped in the 1990s. Between 1995 and 2008, the prevalence of black lung cases more than doubled, according to experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Especially troubling is a documented increase in advanced cases among young miners, who were exposed to coal mine dust after the implementation of prevention measures required by the 1969 law.

MSHA originally proposed the rule to lower miners’ exposure to coal mine dust in 2010, but almost a year’s worth of hearings and comment periods followed. In early August, just before the agency sent the draft final rule to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wrote to President Obama urging the administration to proceed with the rulemaking. Last year, National Public Radio reported that black lung has contributed to the deaths of more than 70,000 miners since 1970. In just one West Virginia clinic, the black lung caseload doubled in the last decade.

While the final rule’s latest progress is promising, there are concerns that it will join the ranks of health and safety protections that have languished at OIRA. The two other MSHA rules (both proposals) currently under OIRA review have been at the office since 2011. Still, OIRA recently allowed another Department of Labor agency to publish a long-awaited proposed rule to protect workers from silica dust. Unions and other worker advocates are encouraging OIRA to review the final black lung rule without delay. 

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