April 10, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

President Trump’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is now reviewing documents that will likely diminish protections for workers from occupational health hazards. On April 4, the Labor Department’s (DOL) Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) submitted a draft request for information on the agency’s regulation to protect coal miners from black lung disease. OIRA is reviewing an MSHA document labeled in the agency’s rulemaking agenda as “Regulatory Reform of Existing Standards and Regulations; Retrospective Study of Respirable Coal Mine Dust Rule.”

The Coal Mine Dust Rule was published in August 2014 and was phased in over the subsequent two years. It included a reduction in the allowable concentration of respirable coal dust to which miners could be exposed from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air (averaged over a shift) to 1.5 milligrams. The lower exposure limit took effect in August 2016. It came at the time of a resurgence of the most severe for a coal workers’ pneumoconiosis which is continuing.

MSHA chief Dave Zatezalo testified in February 2018 before a congressional committee about his priorities for the agency. In response to a question from Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) he said he didn’t know why his agency’s regulatory agenda listed the review as a “deregulatory action.” He remarked that the review was required by the rule MSHA adopted in 2014. He is mistaken. It is not required by anything in the rule.

The preamble to the rule says the agency “intends to evaluate” features of the rule related to the continuous personal dust monitors. (That’s equipment that provides instantaneous data on the concentration of coal dust in a miner’s breathing zone.) Nothing in the preamble language suggests deregulatory action, but rather an assessment of whether the rule should be beefed up. The language from the 2014 rule reads:

MSHA also intends to evaluate the data collected using CPDMs to determine whether (1) the 1.5 mg/m3respirable dust standard should be lowered to protect miners’ health; (2) the frequency of CPDM sampling should be increased; (3) engineering controls and work practices used by mine operators achieve and maintain the required respirable coal mine dust levels; and (4) samples taken on shifts longer than 8 hours should be converted to an 8-hour equivalent concentration to protect miners who work longer shifts.

MSHA submitted this “regulatory reform” action for OIRA’s review the day before it announced another deregulatory changes. It concerns a requirement for mine operators to conduct pre-shift safety examinations. It was a new requirement implemented at the end of the Obama administration for mineral and aggregate mines. The rule was supported by the United Steelworkers (USW) (which represents mine workers at a variety of metal and aggregate mines) as a common sense requirement for employers to identify hazards at the beginning of a shift and keep a record of those actions.

When the Trump administration proposed rolling back the new requirements, the USW’s Mike Wright wrote in comments:

“It is difficult to see how a mine safety and health program based on finding and fixing hazardous conditions could benefit from less information. We urge MSHA to reject these changes to the existing January 2017 rule, along with all future delays in its enforcement.”

The rule was a modest change by the Obama Administration, but many in the industry objected to it. Zatezalo and/or decision-makers up the chain ignored the USW and pandered to the mining industry. Now the industry gets to keep a regulation that’s 40+ years ago.

The other deregulatory action that may be getting its blessing by Trump’s OIRA is a change to OSHA’s beryllium rule. On April 6, OSHA submitted for review a final rule that is expected to eliminate protections for construction and shipyard workers who are exposed to beryllium. Their exposure comes largely from abrasive blasting and welding with materials that contain beryllium. Exposure to the metal can cause chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.

Trump’s OSHA proposed changes in June 2017 to the Obama-era rule. The Trump administration is considering a revocation of protections for construction and shipyard workers, such as on-shift monitoring of beryllium exposure, medical surveillance, personal protective equipment, and training.

Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) is a strong supporter of OSHA’s beryllium rule. He paid special attention to see that shipyard and construction workers were covered by it. When the Trump administration started fiddling with the rule last year, Scott raised objections. Now this deregulatory action is its final phase..

Protections from black lung disease, lung cancer, and safety hazards at mines. April 2018 may turn out to be one of the worst for worker safety rollbacks during the Trump Administration.

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