As the rate of black lung disease continues to grow, a study released Thursday says the rules and regulations in place might not be enough.
The study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, called the “Monitoring and Sampling Approaches to Assess Underground Coal Mine Dust Exposures,” prescribes different ways to protect coal miners from black lung disease.
Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by inhaling coal dust and can be fatal. Dust exposure has also been linked to lung cancer and emphysema. The report primarily delves into ways to control respirable coal mine dust, or RCMD, which can cause black lung disease when workers are exposed to it. Despite a number of federal regulations starting in 1969, the disease has only increased in the past two decades.
“Determining the causes of that increase and eliminating occupational lung disease in coal miners is a complex scientific, engineering, medical, regulatory, social, political, economic and legal problem,” the report says. “However, a full analysis of that problem is beyond the scope of this report.”
One of the ways to monitor exposure to RCMD is with a continuous personal dust monitor, but it might not be the most effective.
“Concerns were expressed as to whether [continuous personal dust monitor] measurements will accurately reflect the concentration of particles in coal mine dust that are of relevance to coal mining–related respiratory diseases. CPDMs might also measure particles of limestone or other types of rock dust that are typically applied in mines to meet requirements for controlling the combustibility of coal dust,” the report says.
Not all miners are required to wear the monitoring device, so it’s hard to tell the rate at which other miners are being exposed to RCMD. Plus, the report says, the size and cost of the monitoring device might be a deterrent.
The report also says the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health should focus on getting more miners to take part in a voluntary medical surveillance system, and to figure out why some don’t.
A spokeswoman for MSHA said Thursday that the agency is reviewing the report before commenting.
In 2016, Congress asked NIOSH for science-based conclusions on monitoring and sampling, and ways to help mine operators curb coal mine dust exposure in underground mines.
The 10-person committee held sessions in Charleston and Morgantown and visited the Dana Mine in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, and the Arch/Coal Leer Mine in Grafton before compiling the 166-page study.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine were founded by President Abraham Lincoln and provide objective analysis to inform policy decisions.
Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the conclusions matched those expressed by the coal mining industry.
It’s up to MSHA to enforce rules, but companies are responsible for maintaining their equipment and training employees to foster a safe work environment, she said.
Plus, she said, exposure levels are just one aspect of safety.
“A holistic approach to protect miner health extends far beyond sampling,” Burke said. “Over the years, we have advocated for a range of additional steps to be taken — from a mandatory X-ray surveillance program for all active underground and surface coal miners to MSHA recognition and approval of nontraditional controls [such as airstream helmets] that are now available and can reduce miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust.”