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MSHA administrator to miners and operators: Be proactive on preventing silica exposure

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Photo: US Department of Labor

Arlington, VA — As the Mine Safety and Health Administration works toward publishing a proposed rule on respirable crystalline silica, agency administrator Chris Williamson is encouraging mine workers and operators to “take proactive measures” to assess silica-related health hazards.

The Department of Labor’s Spring 2022 regulatory agenda, published June 21, shows MSHA’s intent to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking on silica in September. Speaking during a June 28 conference call for industry stakeholders, Williamson called for forward-thinking and action within the mining community in the interim.

OSHA estimates that 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica dust annually. Workers can inhale silica dust during mining and other operations, including cutting, sawing, drilling or crushing materials such as rock and stone. Crystalline silica can damage lung tissue and lead to lung disease, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or incurable silicosis.

“When miners are repeatedly overexposed to silica levels that are unhealthy, that’s how you develop these diseases,” Williamson said. “Once a miner develops a form of pneumoconiosis, outside of getting a lung transplant, there’s no fix for that. It’s a progressive illness.”

In June, MSHA launched an enforcement initiative intended to increase protections against respirable crystalline silica. Measures include conducting spot inspections at coal and nonmetal mines “with a history of repeated silica overexposures,” expanding sampling at mines, and offering compliance assistance to mine operators.

MSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations Patricia Silvey said during the call that the enforcement initiative is “not meant to be, ‘Gotcha!’”

“It’s not meant to be punitive,” she continued. “It’s really meant to be proactive and remedial, and try to get corrective action … before we even show up.”

 

A fatality number that ‘really jumps out’

MSHA reported that eight of the 15 fatal on-the-job injuries among miners to date this year have involved workers with one year or less of experience at the mine.

“Whenever we see a number like this, it really jumps out at us and we really want to make sure that training is what it needs to be,” Marcus Smith, chief of MSHA’s Accident Investigations Division, said during the call.

Agency officials discussed several related best practices, including training personnel to:

  • Perform tasks safely and recognize potential hazards.
  • Recognize hazardous highwall conditions.
  • Recognize fall hazards and use fall protection when they exist.
  • Identify hazardous roof and rib conditions.

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