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Final respirable dust rule a step forward in fight to end black lung

date: 
May 12, 2014
For immediate release?: 
 

[TRIANGLE, VA] After extensive review, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today announced its qualified support of the Apr. 23, 2014, final rule issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regarding controlling respirable dust in coal mines.

“This is a step forward in the fight to end black lung,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “While there are many things in this rule we are pleased to see, there are some that we are not. We hope that, as the stakeholders move forward in understanding and implementing this rule, we can get more clarity from MSHA as to how it will actually be applied and enforced in an active working coal mine environment.”

Roberts said that the union approves of many parts of the rule, including lowering the standard for respirable dust from 2.0 milligrams (mg) to 1.5 mg per cubic meter (m3) of air. “Our analysis of MSHA sampling over the past several years at underground mines where we represent the workers shows that the dust in the atmosphere on the longwalls at those mines was out of compliance with the 2.0 mg/m3 standard less than five percent of the time,” Roberts said. “That same analysis leads us to believe that the operators of those mines won’t have a very difficult time in meeting the 1.5 mg/m3 standard.”

The UMWA also is pleased that dust sampling will be done at a production rate of 80 percent instead of 50 percent. This will force operators to keep their equipment and dust control mechanisms, including ventilation, water sprays and cutting bits operating at maximum efficiency.

Under the new rule, dust samples will be taken over the full shift a miner actually works, where previously the sampling was only done for eight hours even if a miner worked a longer shift. “Most miners today are working 10- or 12-hour shifts, meaning that under the existing rule, we don’t know how much dust a miner is actually exposed to while he or she is working,” Roberts said. “The full shift sample will give us that data.

“Along with the real-time reading of dust exposure that will be available to the miner with the deployment of the new continuous personal dust monitor (CPDM), we believe that these provisions will enable miners to be empowered to have more control over their health and safety within the work environment,” Roberts said. “That’s important in any mine, but for those nonunion miners who do not have the protections of a union safety committee at their mine, these provisions could be even more significant.”

The union also supports language in the rule that prohibits operators from using “administrative controls” such as respirators; “airstream” helmets, which provide a constant supply of filtered air to a miner via a plastic face shield; or moving miners out of production areas of the mine to meet the 1.5 mg/m3 standard. This means that operators will have to meet the standard through proper environmental controls, such as ventilation and properly maintained equipment.

The UMWA is concerned that the rule only requires CPDMs to be used in the coal-producing sections of a mine. “Miners who work on beltlines are exposed to dust,” UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane said. “Electricians, mechanics, motor operators and many other people work underground who aren’t at the working face of a mine but who are exposed to dust. They should be wearing CPDMs so that we can keep continuous track of their exposure as well.”

Kane said that the UMWA is disappointed that CPDM technology is not going to be required on the surface areas of underground mines, at surface mines or in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. “Miners who work at surface operations get black lung. One of the “hot spots” identified by MSHA as a place where black lung is on the rise is in the anthracite region. If the CPDM technology is supposed to be used to help fight black lung, then miners at those operations deserve it as well.”

Cost concerns were raised in comments submitted by industry representatives to the proposed respirable dust rule with respect to requiring CPDM technology in these areas and operations. “The UMWA understands that there is a cost to keeping workers healthy and safe,” Kane said. “But we believe it is a price worth paying, because we know better than anyone the cost of not doing so.”

In that vein, the UMWA was pleased to see that smaller mines are not exempt from meeting the respirable dust standard, that the number of samples required to be taken in working sections of mines has been increased threefold and that miners who already have exhibited symptoms of black lung can not be assigned to work in areas with more than 0.5 mg of dust per cubic meter of air. Kane did indicate, however, that the UMWA believed, based on past history of operators tampering with samples and subverting the sampling process, that MSHA should be responsible for doing all the sampling instead of relying on operators to do it.

“We understand that there are many in the industry who have issues with this rule and have filed for judicial review of it,” President Roberts said. “We wonder ourselves how things like the single-shift sample that will be done by MSHA to enforce compliance will work, and if there will be undue adverse consequences from it.

“The operators have the right to petition for judicial review of a government regulation they disagree with,” Roberts said. “We have done that many times ourselves with respect to rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, and we will continue to do so if we believe we need to.

“But on balance, we think this final rule increases protections for workers and should lead to improvements in the atmosphere of an underground coal mine,” Roberts said. “It should lead to a reduction of respirable coal dust, which in turn will lead to a reduction in the number of black lung cases. This is a goal we have long supported, and although we think more can be done, we are glad to see movement in that direction.”

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