UMWA withholding judgment on new black lung rule

April 25, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Miners Public Employees Rally

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts is seldom one to not have anything to say … But it’s been two day snow since the Obama administration announced a new rule that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration says will help protect coal miners from deadly black lung disease. And here’s all the mine workers have to say at this point:

The UMWA has long been the leading advocate of erasing the scourge of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, from our nation’s mines. After the recent uptick in black lung cases among working miners, it became clear to us that either the allowable dust limits were too high, operators weren’t following the law, or the law wasn’t being enforced stringently enough. I have said previously that it is probably a combination of all of those factors.

The respirable dust rule issued yesterday by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is long, detailed and complex. We want to make sure we fully understand not just the theory behind the rule, but how it will be put into practical application in an actual working environment.

We will have representatives participating in today’s stakeholders meeting that MSHA is holding, at which we hope to get many of our questions answered so that we can make the most informed decision we can about this rule.

You can read our Gazette story about the new MSHA rule here, and we’ve posted a copy of the rule here.  There’s also coverage here from NPR’s Howard Berkes and here from the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby, who won a Pulitzer Prize this month for his great expose about how lawyers and doctors work to keep miners from getting black lung benefits.

Updated: Also be sure to read this Pump Handle blog post from former MSHA staffer Celeste Monforton, who explains, among other things:

The new rule, however, is not as protective as the one that MSHA proposed in October 2010. It:

— Does not reduce the PEL to 1.0 mg/m3 which is the level recommended in 1995 by NIOSH. MSHA is adopting a 1.5 mg/m3 PEL despites its own data which shows the 1.0 mg/m3 is feasible. The decision is perplexing. For some key mining tasks, including dusty jobs like roof bolting, more than 50 percent of samples collected by MSHA are already at levels at or below 1.0 mg/m3.

— Does not offer the highest level of protection based on what is feasible. MSHA estimated that 20 coal miners out of 1,000 would develop progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) (the most severe form of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) if it set the PEL at 1.0 mg/m3. The agency’s decision to set the PEL at 1.5 mg/m3 increases that estimate to 50 cases of PMF for every 1,000 coal miners. For emphysema, the risk estimate jumps from 61 cases per 1,000 (with 1.0 mg/m3 PEL) to 99 cases per 1,000 (at the 1.5 mg/m3 PEL.) Again, MSHA’s own data indicates the 1.0 mg/m3 standard is feasible.

— Does not eliminate the requirement that mine operators take their own respirable dust samples that will be used for enforcement. This provisions, which has been roundly criticized in all corners, is akin to driving over the speed limit and sending a notice to the police so they can send you a ticket.

Overall, the new rules are a step in the right direction to better protect miners’ health. Some will say a giant step, others might call it a regular step. Now that the new rules are on the books, they must be diligently followed and enforced. If they are, a couple of decades from now we’ll see the size of the difference they made.

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