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Senators Push Regulators on New Silica Standards for Miners

November 14, 2022 by Dan McCue
(Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos via UnSplash)

WASHINGTON — Democratic senators from four coal producing states want to know why the Mine Safety and Health Administration has delayed the release of a new silica standard for coal miners, particularly those in Appalachia.

Exposure to silica, an inherent part of the dust present in coal mines, is the major cause of the development of silicosis and lung cancer, and a significant contributor to black lung disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In November 2020, an audit by the U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general concluded federal mine safety officials have not done enough to protect coal miners from the miniscule particles that are at least 100 times smaller than beach sand and easily become airborne during the sawing, grinding, drilling or crushing of stone and rock.

The audit found that the Mine Safety and Health Administration lacked the ability to fine mine operators for excess silica exposure alone, and that even if they could, they’d still be relying on a long out-of-date silica limit established almost 60 years ago.

“As a result, workers in coal mines with silica levels above recommended limits continue to be at risk of developing life-threatening health problems,” the report said.

It also noted that more than three times as many coal miners were identified as having black lung disease from 2010 to 2014 than between 1995 and 1999. 

Data from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health indicates that the prevalence of black lung disease in the Appalachian coal fields is worse than previously thought and impacting more young coal miners than ever before.

In response, in September 2021, the Labor Department let it be known that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was expected to be released in January 2022. 

But on Monday, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Casey, D-Pa., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., sent a letter to the agency, asking why they’re still awaiting the publication of a new silica safety standard.

“It has been over a year since [the department’s original correspondence] and still no new proposed silica standard has been promulgated that would further protect our miners,” the senators said.

Excessive exposure to silica has been linked to several debilitating and incurable diseases such as black lung, silicosis, and the most advanced and deadly form of black lung, progressive massive fibrosis, all of which are entirely preventable,” they continued. 

“For generations, our brave coal miners have risked their lives and health to power our nation to greatness. We have an obligation as a country to protect their health and welfare with commonsense rules and regulations, and we look forward to working with you to do just that,” they said.

This past summer, the Mine Safety and Health Administration launched a new enforcement initiative to better protect the nation’s miners from health hazards resulting from repeated overexposure to respirable crystalline silica. 

As part of the program, MSHA will conduct silica dust-related mine inspections and expand silica sampling at mines, while providing mine operators with compliance assistance and best practices to limit miners’ exposure to silica dust.

“Simply put, protecting miners from unhealthy levels of silica cannot wait,” said Chris Williamson, assistant secretary for MSHA, in a written statement last summer. 

“Our agency is working hard and is committed to issuing a silica rule that will enhance health protections for all miners,” Williamson continued. “The enforcement initiative that we are announcing today is a step we can take now while we continue the rulemaking process toward the development of an improved mandatory health standard.”

The senators said they appreciate the agency’s effort, but “unfortunately, the initiative alone does not adequately protect miners from exposure to silica.”

“While we understand that the federal rulemaking process is complex and can be time consuming, we also recognize the critical importance of an updated silica standard to the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners,” they continued.

“That is why we formally request a timely and detailed response to the following questions: What is the current status of a new silica standard and what, if any, progress has been made on it over the past year? What, if any, barriers exist to releasing a timely proposal? What is your current anticipated timeline for the promulgation of a new silica standard?”

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts described black lung as being one of the “most savage occupational diseases in our nation’s history, killing more than one hundred thousand coal miners in the last century. 

“The incidence of black lung disease had been declining until a decade ago, when we began seeing a significant rise in black lung cases, especially among younger miners, largely caused by increased silica dust in the mine atmosphere,” Roberts said.

“There is no silica standard in the mining industry and we desperately need one. It truly is a matter of life and death. We understand MSHA is working on new silica guidelines, but every day there is a delay, lives are being put at greater risk. We need action and we need it now.”

Williamson responded to the senators’ letter in an email to The Well News late Monday afternoon.

“Issuing a proposed rule to better protect miners from developing occupational illnesses related to respirable crystalline silica exposure is a top priority for me and MSHA,” he said. “Our team understands the importance of getting these improved protections in place for miners, and I want to assure miners, labor, mine operators, and the rest of the mining community that we are devoting every available resource and working as quickly as possible to put out a proposed rule.

“From the moment I became assistant secretary, I have prioritized miners’ health and listened to miners, health experts, and medical providers about what happens when miners are exposed to silica at unhealthy levels,” Williamson continued. “We have also implemented a silica enforcement initiative, launched our Miner Health Matters Campaign, and made reforms to increase awareness and improve accessibility to our existing Part 90 program, and we will continue to prioritize protecting miners’ health as well as their safety.

“I appreciate and welcome Sens. Manchin, Casey, Brown, Warner and Kaine’s interest in and support of our silica rulemaking efforts, and their long-standing commitment to protecting miners’ safety and health. I look forward to working with them as we continue to make progress on our rule and other miners’ health initiatives,” he said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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