MSHA chief pledges lower dust limits for miners

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2009 5:24 PM

The new federal Mine Safety and Health Administration director re-emphasized the agency's commitment to reducing miners' exposure to coal dust Tuesday.

Regulations due next September will propose reducing breathable coal dust levels in the nation's approximately 800 underground coal mines, MSHA director Joe Main said during a Web chat.

"MSHA is committed to proposing a rule that will reduce miners' exposure to respirable coal mine dust," Main said. "Ending Black Lung is our goal."

The agency's new regulatory agenda also calls for proposing regulations requiring coal dust monitors for individual miners next April and new standards for breathable silica dust in April 2011.

Both dusts are common in underground coal mines and inhaling them causes debilitating and potentially deadly lung damage. Moreover, regulators fear cases of black lung and silicosis are rebounding after decades of decline due to prolonged dust exposure.

"Miners _ even young miners _ are continuing to get this disease," Main said. "The risk of black lung is a result of the intensity and duration of exposure. Our efforts are directed at making sure that miners spending a working lifetime in coal mines do not develop lung disease."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates 10,000 coal miners have died of black lung over the past decade. At the end of 2008, underground mines in the U.S. employed approximately 49,575 miners.

Until new regulations take effect, Main said MSHA is relying on aggressive enforcement of existing dust regulations and trying to provide miners more and better information about the health risks of dust exposure.

"Any overexposure putting miners at risk is unacceptable," Main said.

MSHA's new regulatory agenda also includes asking for information about systems that detect miners who get too close to heavy equipment underground and impoundment rules for non-coal mines.

The proximity detection equipment is in response to the deaths of 31 miners who've been pinned, crushed or struck by heavy underground equipment.