MSHA to target black lung's cause

The nation's new top mine-safety regulator plans to move quickly on a plan to lower coal miners' exposure to dust that can cause crippling black-lung disease.

Joseph Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, did not release specifics of the plan during a telephone news conference Friday.

However, he referred to longstanding calls for the agency to cut by half the limit on breathable dust in mines.

Main also discussed providing devices to miners that would allow them to constantly monitor the level of dust where they are working. Measures used to test dust now don't give immediate results, Main said.

"I think you'll see our comprehensive plan on ending black lung unveiled" in about two weeks, Main said.

MSHA said earlier this year it planned to work on a new rule on breathable dust in mines in 2011. That angered safety advocates, who argued there was no reason to wait, given that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had recommended cutting the level of breathable dust in a 1995 report.

Main said he will work to speed up the process of putting new dust rules in place.

Black lung is caused by breathing dust thrown into the air during mining. It can cause chronic, debilitating lung impairment and premature death.

Congress put limits on breathable dust in mines in 1969 and required periodic testing. The rate of black lung went down for 30 years, but there is evidence it has been increasing the last decade in parts of Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, according to published reports.

That may be happening because miners are working longer hours and cutting through more rock to get to thinner coal seams, scientists have said.

Safety advocates also have accused coal companies of cheating on dust testing.

If miners wore a device that constantly monitored dust levels, they could limit their exposure, said Tony Oppegard of Lexington, a lawyer who worked at both the Kentucky and federal mine-safety agencies.

"It would be an invaluable tool for miners," he said.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the industry has worked closely with MSHA, scientists and others to improve dust-monitoring techniques. The industry sees nothing to oppose in speeding up application of new dust rules, Popovich said.

Main, a longtime official of the United Mine Workers of America, touched on a wide range of other health and safety issues in the news conference, his first since being confirmed last month.

For instance, he said MSHA will focus on reducing violations that are the leading causes of mine deaths; closely examine preparedness for mine emergencies; and look at how inexperience and training play a role in fatalities.

The agency needs to pay more attention to training for miners at smaller companies that contract to mine coal for larger operations, Main said.

He also said he plans to look at the use of provisions in the federal mine law that empower miners to make sure safety laws are being followed.

Oppegard said MSHA has not done enough in the past to promote the use of those tools, such as the right of miners to appoint a representative to accompany inspectors touring the mine.

Main said the mining industry needs to do more to improve health and safety practices at its mines. Coal companies would be better served to spend money on employees and programs to reduce health and safety problems than on paying fines they get for allowing violations to occur, he said.

"I think that we in this country can achieve 0 fatalities," Main said.

Popovich said the industry doesn't disagree that companies need to take a greater hand in promoting safety.

"To be fair, I think we've done that," he said.

After a disastrous year in 2006 when the number of coal miners killed spiked to 47, the highest in more than a decade, fatalities and the frequency of accidents have been going down, Main said.

MSHA counted 34 deaths at coal mines in 2007, 30 in 2008 and 14 so far this year. The mining industry as a whole is on pace to have the lowest number of deaths ever, Popovich said.

New laws put in place after the 2006 disasters, including an explosion that killed five men at a Harlan County mine, and aggressive enforcement have played a role in the decline, Main said.

Main said he will change an approach known as "compliance assistance" that he and others criticized during the Bush administration.

Safety advocates said MSHA's approach during much of the Bush presidency was to help mines meet the law, rather than crack down on violations.

"Inspectors were basically emasculated under the Bush administration," Oppegard said.

Main said he supports compliance assistance, but he has a different take on it. Inspectors should cite the violations they see, but then explain the problem in order to educate miners and operators, he said.