A proposed new federal regulation that would help protect West Virginia’s coal miners from black lung has been a long time coming. It was 49 years ago that the CDC first recommended that miners be exposed to no more than 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter of air.
Silica dust and disease
The silica dust that hangs in the air in mining operations has long been linked to pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung. Thousands of West Virginians have died of this disease, and thousands more are living with it, for which there is no cure. An estimated 20 percent of people in the Central Appalachians who worked substantial time in coal mining have black lung disease.
Federal regulations eventually limited mining companies from exposing their workers to 100 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter of air, but that did little to protect miners. In 1974, the CDC recommended cutting the dust exposure maximum in half.
For the next 49 years, lobbyists for coal mining companies and other industries stopped the Mine Safety and Health Administration from following through on this rule change. But now the agency has finally proposed the rule change.
Will black lung disease go away?
The question now becomes, how will the mining industry adapt? Mining companies want workers to wear respirators they say will block silica dust from workers’ lungs. But the miners’ union and many workers say that respirators are ineffective. Worker advocates also worry about the part in the proposed regulation that leaves monitoring of silica dust levels mostly to mining companies. This could give employers an opening to manipulate data and avoid actual safety measures.
Still, it’s progress that a suggestion first made in 1974 is finally going through the steps toward becoming the law in West Virginia and the rest of the country. Mine work is dangerous enough. Nobody should risk their long-term health just to earn a living.