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MSHA rule to limit silica dust exposure in mines will be finalized this week


MSHA rule to limit silica dust exposure in mines will be finalized this week

Apr 16, 2024 | 3:46 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
MSHA rule to limit silica dust exposure in mines will be finalized this week
Exposure to mixed coal mine dust that contains silica — a carcinogen — can lead to the development of pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. (Getty Images)

Years of work by labor and health advocates is coming to a head this week as the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is set to publish a finalized rule to limit miners’ exposure to dangerous silica dust, which is known to be a leading cause of pneumoconiosis, or black lung.

The finalized rule — which was posted on the Federal Register on Tuesday but won’t be officially published until Thursday — is the first of its kind for silica dust in mines despite evidence showing the dangers of exposure have existed for decades and other industries already enforce exposure limits. 

In addition to levying limits on exposure and implementing new action levels when a certain amount of silica dust is present in mines, it will also require mine operators and companies to offer free medical monitoring for their workers with the hope of detecting black lung and other respiratory diseases earlier.

“Today, we’re making it clear that no job should be a death sentence, and every worker has the right to come home healthy and safe at the end of the day,” said Julie Su, acting secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, during an announcement of the department’s issuance of a final rule.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20% of coal miners in Central Appalachia are suffering from black lung — the highest rate detected in more than 25 years. One in 20 of the region’s coal miners are living with the most severe form of the condition.

Miners today are also being diagnosed and affected by black lung at younger ages than their predecessors due to a lack of easily accessible coal and an increase in the amount of silica-rich sandstone they have to dig through to reach what remains.

“For too long, we accepted this as just the way things are for people who work in mines,” Su said. “They’ve had to work without the same protections from silica dust that people in other industries have, even though we’ve known about the harms of silica dust since Frances Perkins was the Secretary of Labor [in the 1930s and 40s].”

The new rule — initially proposed in July 2023 — would, for the first time, implement a separate exposure limit for silica dust, cut the maximum exposure limit to 50 micrograms per cubic meter for a full-shift and create an “action level” for when exposure comes at 25 micrograms per cubic meter for a full shift. It also establishes uniform exposure monitoring and control requirements for mine operators to follow.

At a public hearing in Raleigh County in August 2023, dozens of mining labor advocates expressed concerns that the now-finalized rule did not go far enough and would not stop mine operators from falsifying or rigging their air quality reports to avoid a pause in operations. They urged MSHA leaders to take concrete action to improve oversight of mine operators instead of allowing them to monitor themselves and levy heavy penalties for those who don’t follow the new rule. 

In a statement Tuesday, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts echoed some of those same sentiments while commending the new rule.

“This is a critical step to keeping miners safe and healthy not just day-to-day, but for their full lifetime,” Roberts said. “Now, our focus shifts to holding mining companies accountable. Together with our labor partners, UMWA remains steadfast in our efforts to ensure strict adherence to the new legislation within the industry.”

The finalized rule will strengthen some reporting components for mine operators, requiring them to perform periodic evaluations on silica dust levels and use recent sampling instead of historic trends to verify air quality and potential health risks for miners. They also must, for the first time, report any test results showing overexposure for silica dust to MSHA, which could be used to help levy penalties for mines that operate out of compliance.

In the months-long public comment period, dozens of individuals wrote in and appeared at public hearings to commend the ruling and urge swift action to implement it while companies and representatives for several different industries requested that MSHA and the federal government extend the comment period and delay the rule’s enforcement.

The finalized rule gives coal mine operators a year to meet the new standards and requirements while metal and nonmetal mine operators will have two years. As the compliance dates near, MSHA representatives will be offering assistance to those in the industry through training, workshops and more to help them meet the new standards. 

Su said MSHA’s work on the rule is the latest action in a string of improvements that are meant to better protect and support the nation’s miners. She said that work will continue, hopefully saving lives and decreasing the suffering for thousands of people who should not have to live with preventable illnesses like black lung.

“Since I came to the Department of Labor, I have asked my team to unleash their full power to protect working people, to use all the tools we have not just to conduct inspections and issue citations but to keep workers truly safe and make sure workers are heard,” Su said. “We estimate that this final rule will save more than a thousand lives and prevent severe illness for thousands more. This means more moms and dads, sons and daughters, coming home safe and healthy at the end of every day …”