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By Sam Pearson
Black lung disease is on the rise among coal miners, and researchers say one of the culprits is miners’ increasing exposure to respirable silica.
Now scientists are working on a new test method they said could help.
The increased incidence of coal workers contracting pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, found in a study earlier this year, hinges on multiple factors, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said.
For one, more miners are seeking treatment after they stop working. But also, those still on the job are seeing thinner seams of coal that often expose them to higher silica levels, NIOSH researchers said.
In response, NIOSH is piloting a monitoring system at more than 60 mines, R.J. Matetic, the director of NIOSH’s Pittsburgh Mining Research Division, told Bloomberg Environment. “We’re in constant communication with them,” Matetic added, but he declined to identify which mine operators are testing the technology.
The system would return silica exposure results by the end of a shift, giving miners a heads-up of their risk much sooner than current wait times which extend to several weeks. But, it remains unclear how the Mine Safety and Health Administration could encourage mine operators to use the technology.
The effort is sorely needed in the industry, and echoes improvements operators and labor unions have sought since the 1970s, Joe Main, the former head of the MSHA, told Bloomberg Environment.
“Every opportunity we have to move that ball forward to fix this health issue so that miners don’t have to worry about [black lung], we all should be on board doing that,” Main said.
Current lab delays make it hard for miners and their employers to adjust operations quickly if silica exposures peak.
The new technology, however, uses instruments already commercially available to collect dust samples that can be analyzed on site the same day, so that miners who have inhaled too much silica will find out sooner.
By the end of 2018, NIOSH hopes to make the system more user-friendly, Matetic said, so that mine operators can purchase necessary components and begin using it. If completed, the system also could aid workers and employers in other industries like construction and oil and gas facilities where silica exposure may occur.
NIOSH’s field-based monitoring approach will allow mines to collect dust samples on sampling cassettes. Then the samples can be analyzed in an instrument that measures their intensity, which the agency said can take just a few minutes to run on-site.
Researchers have processed more than 2,000 samples using the new tools, Matetic said. The equipment will cost between $10,000 to $25,000 for employers to purchase. Over time, employers could save money with the new system if they avoid paying laboratories to run test results, he added.
The project is off to a good start, but more work is needed to show how the tools would integrate into operations and if its measures of silica would be comparable to more traditional testing methods, Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, told Bloomberg Environment.
“There is a desire, and has been for a long period of time on the industry’s part, to have better information to better protect the workforce,” Waltzman said, “and this is a technology that moves us in that direction.”
The National Mining Association represents more than 300 mining-related organizations including Peabody Energy and Murray Energy Corp.
However, it remains unclear if mine operators can use the NIOSH testing method to comply with the silica standard, Watzman said. That’s because MSHA’s rule (RIN:1219-AB64) for respirable dust, which can contain silica, doesn’t allow for the use of the type of sampling known as gravimetric samples, such as those used by the end-of-shift system under development.
MSHA allows higher silica levels in mines than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does for other industries, because it hasn’t taken regulatory action to lower its silica standard.
MSHA’s silica standard, which is based on a 1973 American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) threshold, allows for exposures up to 100 micrograms per cubic meter of silica. That’s double what OSHA’s silica standard, updated in 2016, permits for other industries.
If MSHA’s respirable dust rule isn’t changed, Watzman said the method could be more suited for MSHA inspectors examining a mine, rather than mine operators. Companies could also use it as an engineering control, rather than for compliance purposes, he added.
Lawmakers like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, have described the technology as something that “if required, could improve compliance” with MSHA’s silica standard.
Asked at a hearing of the committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections Feb. 6 if regulators intend to require mine operators to use the new tool, David Zatezalo, who heads MSHA under the Trump administration, didn’t directly respond.
Zatezalo said mine operators “across [the] coal industry” use the type of sampling method at issue, but he didn’t say how MSHA might encourage the practice.
The agency had no further comment, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told Bloomberg Environment.
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