New coal-dust rules will save miners without hurting the industry

July 7, 2014 

  • At issue: April 24 Bloomberg article, "Labor Dept. orders 25% cut in coal dust levels; Rule also requires more testing"

When I first set foot in a coal mine 47 years ago, I had no idea what changes would be in store for the industry. Back then, it wasn't unusual for coal-mining fatalities to exceed 100 in a single year.

Over time, thanks to stronger enforcement, better cooperation with mine operators, education and training, we are seeing those numbers fall to record lows. The emphasis on mine safety is paying off.

Concerns over health matters, however, continue to present challenges, because coal miners are still dying from black lung. Since 1968, 76,000 miners' deaths have been linked to this deadly, yet highly preventable, disease, and more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits have been paid out to disabled miners and their families.

That is why one of the first actions I took at the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2009 was to launch the End Black Lung — Act Now campaign.

Sadly, it is not a disease of the past. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified more than 1,000 working miners with the disease in the last 10-year surveillance of miners. And 17 of 24 miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in April 2010 had evidence of disease, including miners in their 30s with as few as five years underground.

Nearly two months ago, at an event held in Morgantown, W. Va., MSHA issued its final rule on limiting miners' exposure to respirable coal dust. It was an emotionally charged day, with many current and former miners on hand to commemorate the first major changes to coal-dust regulations in more than 30 years.

MSHA worked hard to craft a balanced rule that allows miners to stay healthy and businesses to continue to operate. We listened closely to industry concerns. And immediately after it was issued, MSHA began reaching out to miners and mine operators to help with implementation. We have held several meetings, including in Kentucky, to explain the new rule and its purpose.

MSHA will make available technical assistance and comprehensive compliance assistance material, and has provided a number of guidance documents and a dedicated website for miners and operators. MSHA established an alliance with mining-industry stakeholders to help with implementation of the rule, which begins Aug. 1.

It's a strong rule, but one where we've applied common sense to what we proposed in order to protect miners.

Some of the biggest changes are provisions that close loopholes that can mask overexposures and keep us from getting a true picture of how much dust miners are breathing. The new rule changes the current practice of averaging dust samples, which allows miners on some shifts to be exposed to levels above the standard. It requires sampling on all shifts and for the entire shift.

It increases the minimum production level for taking a valid sample from 50 percent to 80 percent to better reflect normal mining conditions, and it increases the number of operator samples at mines with particular dust-control problems. It requires immediate action to correct high dust levels when a sample is out of compliance, and it contains stronger dust-control verification provisions and stronger certification requirements for those who conduct sampling.

The new rule also makes use of cutting-edge technology. The continuous personal dust monitor has been developed to provide real-time information about dust levels, allowing miners and operators to identify problems and make adjustments instead of letting overexposures languish. It reduces the overall dust standards in coal mines from 2 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air, and expands the medical surveillance program to include surface as well as underground coal miners.

When Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, it stated that the goal was to "permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire adult working life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupation-related disease during or at the end of such period."

I am confident we can carry out Congress' intent through this rule, reducing dust levels and, ultimately, preventing miners from getting black lung. It is time for the mining community to act to end this disease.

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