When I first set foot in a coal mine 47 years ago, I had no idea what changes would be in store for the industry. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for the number of coal mining fatalities to exceed 100 in a single year. Over time, thanks to stronger enforcement, better cooperation with mine operators, education and training, we are seeing those numbers fall to record lows. The emphasis on mine safety is paying off.
Concerns over health matters, however, continue to present challenges, because coal miners are still dying from black lung. Since 1968, 76,000 miners’ deaths have been linked to this deadly, yet highly preventable disease, and more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits have been paid out to disabled coal miners and their families. That is why one of the very first actions I took when I became assistant secretary of MSHA in 2009 was to launch the End Black Lung – Act Now campaign.
I have seen the tragic consequences of the disease up close and personal. Many of us in the mining community have seen family, coworkers or close friends become debilitated by black lung, saddled with an oxygen bottle and struggling mightily to take each breath. Sadly, it is not a disease of the past. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified more than 1,000 working miners with the disease in the last 10-year surveillance of miners. And 17 of 24 miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in April 2010 had evidence of black lung disease, including miners in their 30s with as few as five years underground.
Nearly two months ago, at an event held at the NIOSH facility in Morgantown, West Virginia, MSHA issued its final rule on limiting miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust. It was an emotionally charged day, with many current and former miners on hand to commemorate the first major changes to coal dust regulations in more than 30 years. A former miner disabled from the unhealthy coal mine dust told me he wished these new protections had been in place when he worked underground.
MSHA worked hard to craft a balanced rule that allows miners to stay healthy and businesses to continue to operate. Throughout the process, we listened closely to industry concerns about its feasibility. And immediately after it was issued, MSHA began reaching out to miners and mine operators to help with implementation. We have held several meetings to explain the new rule and its purpose — with key stakeholders, the media and Capitol Hill. Six stakeholder meetings with miners and mine operators took place in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Alabama and Colorado where, collectively, several hundred people took the opportunity to attend.
During each session, most of which lasted several hours, the provisions of the new rule were explained and question and answer sessions were held. We have offered considerable MSHA resources to help the mining industry implement the new rule; this was emphasized at all of the events. MSHA will make available technical assistance and comprehensive compliance assistance material, and has provided a number guidance documents and a dedicated website for coal miners and coal mine operators. We are fulfilling many requests for assistance and guidance.
Furthermore, MSHA established an alliance with mining industry stakeholders to help with implementation of the rule, which begins on Aug. 1. It’s a strong rule, but one where we’ve applied common sense to what we proposed in order to protect miners.
We think some of the biggest changes are provisions that close the loopholes that can mask overexposures and keep us from getting a true picture of how much dust miners are breathing. The new rule changes the current practice of averaging dust samples, which allows miners on some shifts to be exposed to levels above the standard. It requires sampling on all shifts and for the entire shift.
It increases the minimum production level for taking a valid sample from 50 percent to 80 percent to better reflect normal mining conditions, and it increases the number of operator samples at mines with particular dust control problems.
It requires immediate action to correct high dust levels when a sample is out of compliance, and it contains stronger dust control verification provisions and stronger certification requirements for those who conduct sampling.
The new rule also makes use of cutting-edge technology. The continuous personal dust monitor has been developed to provide real-time information about dust levels, allowing miners and operators to identify problems and make necessary adjustments instead of letting overexposures languish.
It reduces the overall dust standards in coal mines from 2 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air, and expands the medical surveillance program to include surface as well as underground coal miners.
When Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, it stated, “Among other things, it is the purpose of this title to provide, to the greatest extent possible, that the working conditions in each underground coal mine are sufficiently free of respirable dust concentrations in the mine atmosphere to permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire adult working life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupation-related disease during or at the end of such period.”
I am confident that we can carry out Congress’ intent through this rule, reducing dust levels and, ultimately, preventing miners from getting black lung. It is time for the mining community to act to end this disease. The implementation of this new and historic rule will do just that.
Joseph A. Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.