By Kim Smiley
On April 23, 2014, federal officials announced changes to the regulations governing dust-control practices in coal mines. These changes are the most significant since the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and are intended to curb the increasing number of black lung cases.
Black lung is a potentially deadly disease that occurs when coal dust accumulates in a person’s lungs. The coal dust slowly destroys parts of the lungs and blood vessels resulting in breathing problems, coughing and even death if the lungs are unable to adequately function. As discussed in a previous blog, there is evidence that the number of black lung cases has been increasing in recent years. Many believe that changes to the mining industry, such as modern high-speed mining equipment that produces high levels of dust and longer shifts, are increasing the risks to miners, in at least some mines.
The bad news is that there is no way to remove the dust once it has settled into the lungs and black lung disease is irreversible, but the good news is that it can be prevented by limiting the coal dust a person inhales and this is exactly what the new federal regulations are hoping to do.
The new regulations attempt to reduce the number of black lung cases by reducing the amount of coal dust exposure that is allowed during a shift by 25% (1.5 milligrams per cubic meter from 2.0). Better monitoring of dust levels will also be required. Miners regularly exposed to high levels of coal dust will be required to wear monitors that continuously track coal dust levels. If dust levels are found to be above the limit, immediate actions to lower the dust limits will be required (such as slowing production) and respirators will be required to be available to miners working in the high dust areas.
The changes, first proposed in 2010, have been a long time coming and many in the mining industry have opposed them. Some plan to continue fighting against the new regulations like Murray Energy Corp who have stated their intention to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor saying the new rules are flawed, have no scientific support and are unachievable. As with any new regulation, only time will tell how smoothly the new changes can be implemented and how effective a solution they will be.