The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 5, 2014

Black Lung Disease: MSHA official explains dust sampling rules

Requirements for mines include real-time reading of dust levels in the air

— New dust sampling requirements for mines that will allow real-time levels to be reported and will help terminate black lung disease will be launched Aug. 1. Joe Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Administration, explained the new rules at Pipestem State Park Wednesday while attending the 2014 Black Lung Conference.

Main said the End Black Lung Now Campaign uses “all the tools in the tool bag” to eradicate the disease that has killed more than 76,000 miners, or been a factor in their deaths, since 1968. Even with the standards already in place, an estimated 1,000 miners have been diagnosed with the disease in the last 10 years, Main said.

“Those who choose the occupation of mining should have the opportunity to spend their working career like anyone else and come out at the end free of injuries and illnesses like black lung,” Main said.

The maximum amount of dust a miner can breathe over the course of a shift is 2 milligrams per cubic meter. Main said the dust that causes black lung is “very fine.” He said the first step is to make sure dust levels are at acceptable standards, and to make sure overages are not ignored.

“Getting that dust level down is critical,” he said.

Main said MSHA used a strategic approach that fixes a number of problems.

New sampling requirements will allow an accurate, real-time reading of dust levels, and mine operators will be required to take corrective action immediately. To get those real-time samples, miners will wear a continuous personal dust monitor, which is connected to a tube fastened on the miner’s lapel. The CPDM is attached for an eight-hour shift and provides real-time display of cumulative dust levels.  

Designated occupations, those where miners are exposed to the most respirable dust, must have five valid samples obtained in every two-month period. In designated areas, the points where coal is moved from one location to another, one valid sample every two months is required. If an excessive amount of dust is found, then five valid samples must be taken to determine compliance.

Corrective actions include making respirators available to all affected miners, and taking action to lower the concentration of respirable dust.

Current rules take an average of dust samples over five shifts, and results can take weeks.

Mine operators will have some extra paperwork, as shift checks for the dust sampling must have accurate records and two signatures.

“Mine operators are going to be held accountable pretty much every day,” Main said.

Main said MSHA will do more inspections during off-shifts “when they least expect us.”

His final goal is to reduce the acceptable dust level standard from 2 mg per cubic meter to 1.5, then to 1 and finally, to .5

“Thousands have died of the disease, miners are still getting it; it’s time to end it,” he continued. “We know how to fix it, we just need to get it done.”

Mine owners and operators are not on their own to implement the new rules and the new technology, Main said. MSHA will offer support crews that will go to the mines to help begin the process. Although, MSHA has gotten some resistance from mine owners and operators, Main said the industry is capable of implementing the rules.

He noted that of the 24 miners who died at Upper Big Branch four years ago, 17 who were autopsied had black lung, some of them only in their 30s, one who’d worked in the mines fewer than five years.

Miners who talk to him today say they wish the new rules had been in place when they first went to work in the mines, Main said.

“Miners would trade tomorrow any compensation they get (to have) their lungs back,” Main said. “These rules will protect miners and not expose them to the dust levels that caused black lung in the generations before them.”

The conference, which concludes Friday, is sponsored by the West Virginia Association of Black Lung Clinics and the West Virginia Black Lung Clinics Program.

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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