Unions in the U.S. are demanding a new Standard on silica dust exposure, as the prevalence of black lung disease among the nation’s mining workers continues to grow.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the United Steelworkers International Union (USW) have written a joint-letter addressed to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), expressing their concerns over mining practices that are costing workers their lives.
The unions labelled the MSHA’s current silica standards “simply inadequate”, and said the biggest step the MSHA could take to protect workers would be to cut the allowable concentration of silica per cubic meter of air from 100 micrograms to 50.
“MSHA should consider the OSHA silica rule and the promulgate a new rule that is as, if not more, protective of miners. Currently, our nation provides less protection from silica to miners than to any other group of workers. That is unacceptable,” the letter says.
OSHA set a new silica standard in 2016, cutting the permissible exposure limit in half, but MSHA has yet to follow suit.
For coal dust, the current Coal Mine Dust Rule measures all respirable coal dust in a coal mine, lumping coal dust with silica. However judging by their respective permissible exposure limits, silica is fifteen to thirty times more fibrogenic than coal dust, making it many times more dangerous to miners’ lungs.
What are black lung and silicosis?
Black lung, also referred to as pneumoconiosis, is a respiratory disease caused by inhaling coal dust and presents symptoms such as coughing, inflammation, and fibrosis, a thickening and scarring of tissue.
Silicosis is an aggressive form of pneumoconiosis, which can be fatal. The progressive and irreversible disease is contracted when tiny particles of silica dust are breathed in and settle in the lungs.
In the past, the primary cause of black lung was thought to be coal dust, but as coal seams become deeper and thinner, miners are cutting through more waste rock, much of which is high in silica.
Recent studies have exposed a surge in underground U.S. coal miners suffering from black lung disease, with one study finding that one in five miners with over 25 year experience are suffering from the irreversible disease.
Many of these cases have advanced to an aggressive condition called progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). A 2018 report found over 4,600 U.S. miners have developed PMF since 1970. Half of these cases occurred after the year 2000.
“All miners need this standard, surface and underground, no matter what they’re mining,” said USW president Leo Gerard. “This Administration says they love miners. Let’s see if they mean it.”