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Union leaders call for new MSHA silica standard

Image: NIOSH

Washington — Alarmed by a recent spike in cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung, union presidents Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America and Leo Gerard of United Steelworkers have sent a letter to Mine Safety and Health Administration leader David Zatezalo requesting stricter regulation of respirable silica dust.

In the letter, dated June 19, Roberts and Gerard cite extensive research documenting the impact of silica dust exposure on the resurgence of black lung. One study, released by the University of Illinois at Chicago in May 2018, found that more than 4,600 coal miners have developed the most severe form of black lung disease since 1970, with almost half the cases emerging after 2000.

Writing that MSHA’s current silica standards haven’t been updated since 1985 and are “in desperate need of revision,” Roberts and Gerard call for a new standard to protect miners from silica dust. The pair recommend MSHA follow the example of recent OSHA silica standards for construction and general industry and maritime, respectively, both of which lowered the permissible exposure limit by half to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour period.

A carcinogen found in sand, stone and artificial stone, crystalline silica also can cause other conditions such as silicosis – a chronic disease that involves scarring of the lungs – and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. OSHA estimates that 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica dust annually.

“MSHA should consider the OSHA silica rule and then promulgate a new rule that is as, if not more, protective of miners,” the letter states. “Currently, our nation provides less protection from silica to miners than to any other group of workers. That is unacceptable.”

Additionally, the letter recommends MSHA:

  • Require the use of a recently developed NIOSH tool designed to provide post-shift assessments of mine workers’ exposure to silica.
  • Require more miners to be sampled.
  • Focus “special attention” on cutting activities that involve high concentrations of silica.
  • Work closely with NIOSH, the National Black Lung Association and similar organizations to share information and monitor trends.

According to the Department of Labor’s Spring 2019 regulatory agenda, released May 22, MSHA in July intends to issue a Request for Information on respirable crystalline silica.

Meanwhile, Roberts and Zatezalo testified during a June 20 hearing before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee on MSHA’s measures to protect miners from black lung.


During his testimony, Zatezalo said MSHA’s RFI will focus on personal protective equipment – primarily helmets with respirators, which provide “clear air” to miners.

Roberts, however, said certain mine work makes it virtually impossible to wear that kind of PPE, as well as others. Zatezalo expressed optimism that MSHA could find a way to make the PPE less cumbersome, noting that OSHA’s silica rule allows compliance achievement through PPE while MSHA’s current standard doesn’t.

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