Rule Lowering Allowable Coal Dust Among Miners Goes into Effect

By Roy Maurer Aug 8, 2014

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) rule eliminating loopholes that have masked overexposures to coal dust took effect Aug. 1, 2014.

MSHA said the complete rule will be implemented in phases, with the first phase providing “immediate protections to miners.” The final rule lowers miners’ exposure to coal dust from 2.0 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air over a full work shift, requires more-frequent sampling for dust levels and expands requirements for medical surveillance of miners.

The first phase, effective Aug. 1, requires immediate corrective action when an employer’s sample shows excessive dust concentrations, and authorizes MSHA to cite an employer based on a single full-shift sample showing excessive dust rather than on an average of samples, which was done previously.

“August 1 marks the beginning of a healthier future for coal miners in America,” said Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a news release. “Miners can have greater confidence that the air they breathe at work will not destroy their lungs.”

The rule requires mine operators to use continuous personal dust monitors, beginning in February 2016, to keep tabs on underground miners exposed to the highest respirable dust concentrations, as well as all miners with evidence of black lung disease. The rule reduces the permissible exposure limit to respirable coal dust in August 2016, from 2.0 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air.

The rule represents the most significant changes to dust-control practices in mines since the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, and continues the agency’s efforts to eradicate black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, an incurable ailment caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust that damages the respiratory system.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 76,000 miners have died since 1968 as a result of the disease, and more than $44 billion in federal compensation benefits have been paid out to coal miners disabled by black lung and to their survivors. Even though the incidence of black lung has dropped dramatically since the 1970s, miners are still being diagnosed with the disease, according to NIOSH.

The National Mining Association has called the rule a “one-size-fits-all approach that fails to reflect the constructive suggestions from representatives of industry and labor.” The employer group is currently suing MSHA over the rule. The association’s Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Bruce Watzman said that the implementation schedule and the new requirements are “misaligned and, as a result, preclude a fair and proper opportunity for coal mine operators to comply with the rule. In many cases, compliance will be infeasible.”

“MSHA has worked extensively with the mining community since [the final rule was published] to make sure these new protections are in place and that miners get the benefit of lower dust levels in the air they breathe,” said Main. “The recent impact inspection at Rhino Eastern LLC’s Eagle Mine 3 [near Bolt, W.Va.], where inspectors found virtually no dust controls, underscores the need for this rule.”

The agency has hosted briefing sessions and stakeholder meetings across the country to provide a comprehensive review of the rule’s new requirements. Compliance information, fact sheets and other information can be found here.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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