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Scientists, Mine Safety Officials Discuss Black Lung Protections

Sydney Boles
Ohio Valley Resource

  Officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration met for the first time with miners’ health researchers Wednesday in a new partnership designed to discuss ways to better protect coal miners from the dust that causes black lung disease. In future meetings, representatives from the two agencies will discuss recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2018 report on monitoring underground coal dust exposure. That report said the coal mining industry needs a “fundamental shift” in the way it controls exposure to coal and rock dust.

“A common theme that occurred throughout the National Academy recommendation is the need for an industry, labor, academia, manufacturers and government to work together on an investigation, training and solution related to respirable coal mine exposure,” said MSHA Director of Office of Standards, Regulations, and Variances Sheila McConnell. “This partnership comes directly from those recommendations.” 

The meeting comes as researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, continue to track epidemic-levels of black lung disease among coal miners; as many as one in five experienced Appalachian coal miners has some form of the disease. But collaboration between the scientists and the regulators has been tense. Scientists with NIOSH have been encouraging MSHA to regulate silica dust for almost 50 years, while MSHA has resisted those recommendations. 

MSHA head David Zatezelo has been reluctant to embrace the science on silica’s toxicity, saying his agency would need to wait to determine the effects of a 2014 coal dust rule. That rule strengthened protections on overall coal dust exposure but did not specifically regulate dust from silica. That wait could last at least a decade.

“Due to the decades-long latency period between exposure and disease manifestation, a medically valid study cannot be completed in the near term,” Zatezelo told a Congressional panel in June. “But MSHA anticipates the study will confirm that dramatic increases in sampling and compliance translate into reduced black lung incidence going forward.”

NIOSH has continued to release research demonstrating more severe cases of black lung disease among younger miners and showing that miners at surface sites are also at risk of disease. 

Sydney Boles is the Ohio Valley ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.
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