© Mark Agnor | Dreamstime
Coal Mining

Regulatory Update: MSHA Targets the ‘New’ Black Lung

July 6, 2022
The addition of respirable crystalline silica makes coal miner disease more deadly.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has launched an enforcement initiative targeting the exposure of coal miners to respirable crystalline silica, which when added to coal dust creates a more deadly form of black lung disease that strikes its victims down more quickly than the older form of the illness.

“Simply put, protecting miners from unhealthy levels of silica cannot wait,” declared Chris Williamson, the Department of Labor (DOL) Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health. Like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the mine safety agency is part of DOL. The new initiative will focus the agency’s efforts on both coal and other, non-coal mining operations, such as mining for metals.

Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust, MSHA pointed out. Materials like sand, stone, concrete and mortar contain crystalline silica. Respirable crystalline silica—minute particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary beach sand—becomes airborne during cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling and crushing stone and rock.

This is why OSHA already has in place and enforces extensive regulations dealing with the production of and manufacturing processes using silica. Earlier this year, OSHA announced a Regional Emphasis Program (REP) that stepped up its silica enforcement efforts in the Denver-based Region 8: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

OSHA said this effort is focused on having industry employers follow required safety standards and alert workers in regard to their exposure to silica hazards. The emphasis program also addresses struck-by and crushing hazards for handling of granite, marble, limestone, slate and other stone slabs.

MSHA, however, has yet to issue new regulations in regard to silica, although it announced that one will be coming this fall. “Our agency is working hard and is committed to issuing a silica rule that will enhance health protections for all miners,” Williamson said. “The enforcement initiative that we are announcing today is a step we can take now while we continue the rule-making process toward the development of an improved mandatory health standard.”

Without proper protections and engineering controls in place, miners can be exposed to dangerous levels of crystalline silica particles, which increases their risk of developing serious silica-related diseases, the agency observed.

MSHA noted that these conditions can include incurable lung diseases such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly referred to as “black lung;” progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung; silicosis; lung and other cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.

The relatively new version of black lung disease came to prominence late in the last decade and it has been observed to progress more quickly than the older version, resulting in some coal miners dying from it in their 20s. The widespread addition of silica to coal dust is believed to have occurred because seams of almost pure coal have been disappearing, resulting in the mining of more coal mixed with rock.

“We are committed to using every tool in MSHA’s toolbox to protect miners from developing debilitating and deadly lung diseases that are entirely preventable,” Williamson added. “We have seen too many miners carrying oxygen tanks and struggling to breathe just to take a few steps or do the simplest of tasks after having their lungs destroyed by toxic levels of respirable dust.”

MSHA says the silica enforcement initiative will include:

  • Spot inspections at coal and metal nonmetal mines with a history of repeated silica overexposures to closely monitor and evaluate health and safety conditions.
  • Increased oversight and enforcement of known silica hazards at mines with previous citations for exposing miners to silica dust levels over the existing permissible exposure limit of 100 micrograms. For metal and nonmetal mines where the operator has not timely abated hazards, MSHA will issue a 104(b) withdrawal order until the silica overexposure hazard has been abated. For coal mines, MSHA will encourage changes to dust control and ventilation plans to address known health hazards.
  • Expanded silica sampling at metal and nonmetal mines to ensure inspectors’ samples represent the mines, commodities and occupations known to have the highest risk for overexposure.
  • A focus on sampling during periods of the mining process that present the highest risk of silica exposure for miners. For coal mines, those processes include shaft and slope sinking, extended cuts and developing crosscuts, while metal and nonmetal sampling will focus on miners working to remove overburden.
  • Reminding miners about their rights to report hazardous health conditions, including any attempt to tamper with the sampling process.

In addition, MSHA announced that its Educational Field and Small Mine Services staff will provide compliance assistance and outreach to mine operators, unions and other mining community organizations to promote and advance protections for miners.

As part of the program, MSHA also said it “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.”

Sponsored Recommendations

ISO 45001: Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS)

March 28, 2024
ISO 45001 certification – reduce your organizational risk and promote occupational health and safety (OHS) by working with SGS to achieve certification or migrate to the new standard...

Want to Verify your GHG Emissions Inventory?

March 28, 2024
With the increased focus on climate change, measuring your organization’s carbon footprint is an important first action step. Our Green House Gas (GHG) verification services provide...

Download Free ESG White Paper

March 28, 2024
The Rise and Challenges of ESG – Your Journey to Enhanced Sustainability, Brand and Investor Potential

Work Safety Tips: 5 Tactics to Build Employee Engagement for Workplace Safety

March 13, 2024
Employee safety engagement strategies have become increasingly key to fostering a safer workplace environment. But, how exactly do you encourage employee buy-in when it comes ...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!