Aug. 1 marks the start of new and historic protections against black lung disease for U.S. underground and surface coal miners.
American coal miners will be better protected from the disabling and life-shortening respiratory diseases known as “black lung” as a new rule goes into effect Aug. 1, representing the first major changes in this area since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
While we’ve made progress in keeping miners safe over the years, the evidence makes clear that they need more protections. More than 76,000 miners have died since 1968 as the result of black lung, according to estimates from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits have been paid out to disabled coal miners and their survivors. Miners, including young miners, continue to be diagnosed. Just last month, the Labor Department office overseeing the federal black lung compensation program said it expects more than 7,400 claims to be filed this year.
In December 2009, I launched the “End Black Lung − Act Now” campaign with the intent of engaging the mining community on the mission of ending the disease that has robbed so many miners of their health and lives and caused grief to their families. This new rule is the centerpiece of that campaign.
Since the rule was announced on April 23, MSHA has worked extensively with the mining community through briefing sessions, collaborative meetings and technical assistance, and we have established a Web page with resource materials.
The Aug. 1 rule provides immediate protection for miners as it eliminates loopholes that have masked overexposure of miners to high dust levels for years, improves and expands sampling of the air miners breathe, improves mine operator accountability, and adds new medical surveillance entitlements for miners.
Under the new rule, mine operators must take immediate action when any dust sample exceeds the compliance level. It also:
- requires sampling for the full shift a miner works, rather than shutting off the sampling device after 8 hours – even though miners routinely work longer shifts;
- requires mine operators to sample dust in the air on all shifts during the sampling cycle, rather than skipping over some shifts;
- requires dust samples to be taken when mines are operating at least 80 percent of production, rather than as low as 50 percent, so that samples are more representative of miners’ actual working conditions;
- provides increased enforcement authority to issue a citation during MSHA sampling for any single, full-shift sample at or exceeding the citation level; and
- requires more thorough examinations of dust controls on each shift, with a record made of the examination and signed by top mine officials with the new provisions.
In addition, the rule strengthens certification and de-certification requirements for mining personnel who conduct sampling, increases medical surveillance requirements for both surface and underground miners, and expands sampling for dust at surface mining operations.
The importance of these new requirements was made clear during a recent impact inspection at the Rhino Eastern LLC’s Eagle Mine 3 in Wyoming County, West Virginia. MSHA found clouds of dust enveloping miners as they operated huge pieces of coal-cutting equipment without required ventilation controls. Curtains required by law to control respirable dust in working areas were instead rolled up, offering zero protection. While our inspectors issued several citations and orders that day to address the violations, the findings highlighted the need to hold mine operators more accountable to conduct proper examinations and certify they are completed.
Aug. 1 will mark a new day for miner’s health in our country as these new rules usher in a culture where a miner can spend his or her career in in the industry and retire free of illness. In the 1969 Mine Act, Congress set that specific goal. This is a preventable disease that we in the mining community can mark for extinction. Miners deserve no less.