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Mine operators should go beyond compliance to protect miners from black lung: report

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Washington — A “fundamental shift” is needed in the mining industry’s approach to coal dust exposure to help mitigate a surge in black lung disease among underground coal miners, according a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report states that although many mine operators comply with regulations related to monitoring conditions that influence miner health, such efforts may not be enough to help decrease future disease rates.

Eliminating respiratory diseases caused by respirable coal mine dust was the objective of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was amended in 1977. To date, the report authors note, that goal has not been fulfilled.

“There is an urgent need for monitoring and sampling strategies that enable continued, actual progress to be made toward the elimination of diseases associated with coal mine dust exposure,” co-author Thure Cerling, professor of biology, geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, said in a June 28 press release.

In May, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago presented findings showing that more than 4,600 coal miners have developed progressive massive fibrosis – the most severe form of black lung disease – since 1970. Nearly half of the cases have been discovered since 2000. In addition, a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a resurgence in progressive massive fibrosis since 1999.

Recommendations in the National Academies report:

  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH should improve monitoring and conduct studies that explore causes behind the swell in cases of black lung disease.
  • Studies should “ensure that the approach of detecting and mitigating exposures for designated occupations reliably results in controlling exposures of all workers,” including those not using continuous personal dust monitors, which mine operators are required to use under MSHA’s respirable coal mine dust rule, issued in 2014.
  • Mine operators should evaluate and enhance training and safety programs while using advanced monitoring tools and technologies such as real-time silica monitors.

The report, authorized by Congress and sponsored by NIOSH, did not examine possible changes to MSHA’s 2014 rule on respirable dust in coal mines.

According to a Request for Information published in the July 9 Federal Register, MSHA is seeking input on a retrospective study on the rule.

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