Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stricter rules to prevent black-lung disease and fibrosis, 25 years in the making, are expected to be proposed soon

Michael and Liz Williams pose for a photo outside their home in
McRoberts, Ky. He mined coal for 40 years and has advanced-
stage black lung disease. (Photo by Taylor Sisk, Kaiser Health News)
It's been known for years that black-lung disease and fibrosis among coal miners has increased because coal seams have become thinner and miners are cutting into more sandstone that lies between the seams, but federal regulations still "allow miners to be exposed to twice as much airborne silica as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits for workers in other industries," reports Taylor Sisk of Kaiser Health News. "Five U.S. senators representing parts of Central Appalachia believe the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been dangerously slow to fix the discrepancy."

“The Department of Labor has indicated that we could see a proposed rule as early as April, so I’ll be watching this closely and will continue to push for proper protections for coal miners,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told Sisk. Warner was among senators who wrote MSHA November seeking a new standard. MSHA Administrator Chris Williamson said in February that he plans to announce new rules soon, and noted that the rulemaking process began 25 years ago.

“It’s cruel that this would happen in such a rich country,” Wes Addington of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center said of the persistence of black lung. He told Sisk, “We know how to prevent it, and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that we’d be in a situation where we’re having that same conversation” about progressive massive fibrosis, the lung ailment caused by silica dust.

"The dust turns to sharp particles that become trapped in lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring and reducing the lungs’ capacity to take in oxygen. The condition is debilitating and potentially fatal," Sisk notes. "In central Appalachia, a region primarily comprising West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, the increase in the disease’s most deadly form, progressive massive fibrosis, has been especially pronounced. Since 2005, black lung cases have tripled in the region and PMF has increased tenfold among long-term miners. A study published last fall identified the driving force behind the spike in severe black lung disease as silica dust."

“We were seeing much more severe disease,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the study’s lead author. “We were seeing disease in younger miners, with lesser exposures, so, therefore, more intense exposure.”

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