July 2, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The Mine Safety and Health Administration took an important step yesterday to meet a goal set in the Labor Secretary’s regulatory agenda: proposing a rule to prevent black lung disease. According to data on RegInfo.gov MSHA submitted yesterday a proposed rule entitled “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors”to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Typically, OIRA will take 60-90 days to complete their review.

Mine workers in the U.S. continue to develop debilitating lung diseases from exposure to respirable coal and silica dust. The most protective standards to protect miners’ health were contained in the 1969 Coal Act, including mandatory limits on the concentrations of dust allowed in miners’ work environment. By the early 1990’s however, public health researchers determined those measures were not adequate and too many U.S. workers were at risk of developing severe impairment.

Way back during the Clinton/Reich Administration, MSHA convened an advisory committee which offered dozens of recommendations to transform the agency’s regulatory and enforcement systems to eliminate the exposures that lead to black lung disease. Some of those ideas were proposed in July 2000 by MSHA. They included verification of mine operators’ dust control plans at typical production levels, a take-over of mine operator sampling for compliance purposes, and an assessment of miner’s exposure to coal dust based on a single-shift sampling rather than averaging over multiple shifts or several job tasks. At the time, MSHA’s assistant secretary Mr. Joe Main was the head of health and safety for the United Mine Workers union. He called the plan “fatally flawed” and too complicated for coal miners to understand. As a result, the rule was never finished.

I’ll be eager to read this new proposal when it’s published and see MSHA’s plan to tackle the issues. I have my fingers crossed for something brilliant. The fact that U.S. mine workers continue to be diagnosed today with black lung and silicosis—diseases that are 100% preventable—-is a national disgrace and the mining industry should be embarrassed by this fact.

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