DOL cuts miners’ coal-dust exposure

The Labor Department announced Wednesday that it is finalizing a long-delayed rule to cut the amount of coal dust to which miners can be exposed.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rule will reduce coal-dust exposure limits by a quarter for underground mines and improve requirements for air sampling and monitoring in an attempt to reduce respiratory disease. It will take advantage of new technology to provide real-time monitoring of dust levels, which would allow miners and supervisors to avoid periods of high coal dust.

“Today we advance a very basic principle: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. “But that's been the fate of more than 76,000 miners who have died at least in part because of black lung since 1968.”

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In a notice scheduled to be published May 1 in the Federal Register, MSHA said chronic coal-dust exposure causes lung diseases such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, emphysema, silicosis and chronic bronchitis, together known as black lung.

“These diseases are debilitating and can result in disability and premature death,” the safety group said.

Black lung killed more than 10,000 miners from 1995 to 2004, and the federal government has paid more than $44 billion since 1970 to miners who have suffered from the disease and their families, according to MSHA.

Perez announced the finalized rule at an event in Morgantown, W.Va., two days after the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the final rule, which was first proposed in 2010.

MSHA pulled back from the 2010 proposal after the mining industry and congressional Republicans complained that the rule was costly and unnecessary.

The final rule reduces the allowable exposure from underground mines to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3), down from the 2 mg/m3 standard that hadn’t changed since the 1970s. MSHA had proposed to cut the standard in half to a 1 mg/m3 limit, which had support from miners’ unions.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, health advocates and experts had also recommended a 1 mg/m3 limit.

MSHA also backed down slightly on the required frequency of air sampling.

The National Mining Association (NMA) criticized the final rule, saying MSHA ignored scientific studies showing that the incidence of black lung is declining in most regions.

“We are disappointed that MSHA has chosen to ignore scientific evidence and proven solutions to address exposure to coal dust,” NMA President Hal Quinn said in a statement. “Rather than follow the evidence with a focused response, MSHA has unfortunately decided to proceed with a less effective one-size-fits-all nationwide approach.”

MSHA also ignored the NMA’s suggestions to reduce coal dust exposure, like personal protection technologies, requiring miners to rotate and mandating X-ray surveillance programs for miners.