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As silica dust rule goes into effect, experts advocate education for the industry’s youngest

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As silica dust rule goes into effect, experts advocate education for the industry’s youngest

Jun 03, 2024 | 7:04 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
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As silica dust rule goes into effect, experts advocate education for the industry’s youngest
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Panelists respond to questions from Chris Williamson, Assistant Secretary for MSHA, during Monday’s discussion. (Mine Health and Safety Administration livestream screenshot)

As a new federal rule to limit silica dust exposure for mine workers is set to go into effect later this month, advocates and industry experts are hoping to see the younger generation of coal miners learn more about — and use — the rights they have to ensure the updated industry standards are being met.

The rule — finalized and published by the Mine Health and Safety Administration in April — is the first of its kind to limit silica dust exposure for workers in mines, which is a leading cause of black lung disease among coal miners. Its implementation comes more than 50 years after other industries adopted similar standards to enforce exposure limits based on a wide body of evidence.

In addition to levying limits on exposure and implementing new action levels when a certain amount of silica dust is present in mines, the rule 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.

Panelists from across the industry gathered at the Mine Health and Safety Administration’s office in Beaver on Monday for a discussion on what the new rule could look like for the coal mining industry as well as what workers can do to increase oversight, and in turn better health outcomes for themselves, within the mines they work.

Between government representatives, health care workers, labor advocates and coal miners, the discussion touched on how to limit consequences for and fear held by miners who witness their employers potentially cheating the sampling system. The talk was reflective of points raised during a public hearing for the rule last year, where industry veterans who witnessed how coal mining operators would game oversight standards lamented the lack of enforcement in the then-proposed rule. As finalized, there are more enforcement mechanisms than initially proposed.

“I said I wouldn’t cry, but this is a passion to me. I don’t want to see the young coal miners going through what I’m going through, but I know the silica rule will help eventually,” said Gary Hairston, a black lung patient from Fayette County who serves as president of the National Black Lung Association. “I know it’s going to take a while and I know the companies are going to fight any kind of way they can fight it … I’m going to tell you, if the young men don’t start speaking up for themselves and start telling on the companies, we ain’t going to do it.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, miners today are 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.

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.

Lisa Emery, a respiratory therapist who works as the director of the Black Lung Clinic at New River Health Association, in Oak Hill, said the rates of new complicated black lung X-rays she’s seeing in her clinic are “mind boggling.” 

“Seeing these X-rays continue to come in [from younger patients] that are very alarming, I know that we haven’t peaked yet,” Emery said. “When this rule finally comes into place and is implemented, it’ll be exciting to watch it unfold and see everyone’s health improve, but I don’t think that’s going to happen right away.”

While a majority of the rule will go into effect on June 17 with most compliance standards kicking in next year, Emery and others on the panel acknowledged that it’s going to be some time until they see the results reflected in coal miners’ lives. 

In the meantime, they said, it’s pertinent to ensure that coal miners feel confident and comfortable enough to report any malfeasance by operators to MSHA and that MSHA responds appropriately. 

Distrust of coal mining companies is nothing new. At August’s public hearing, coal mining veterans shared stories of how they’ve been pressured by operators over generations to change reporting practices to skirt laws and make it appear that health and safety risks are minimal when they are not. Such practices have, in the worst of circumstances, led to disasters that cost the lives of coal miners.

Josh Roberts, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers of America, said it doesn’t matter how many laws are in place if there is not widespread and unquestioning support for coal miners to report when they see something wrong.

“You can have all the laws you want,” Roberts said. “You can have the best roof control plan, the best ventilation plans in the country, but if those miners are not protected and they don’t feel that they have the right to speak out, it doesn’t do any good whatsoever.”

MSHA takes compliance complaints from workers, but in order for workers to know that something is out of compliance they need to be educated on the rules they are meant to be following, said Sam Petsonk, a labor attorney. For themselves, they should also know what rights they have afforded to them if they’re diagnosed with black lung, which includes protection from discrimination, including a cut to hours or job termination.

“I think there are two primary methods for achieving better prevention of silicosis,” Petsonk said. “Number one is education and number two is empowerment. That’s what we’ve heard from everybody here. We have an opportunity with this new rule to educate people about the contents of the rule, which is really important.”