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Preventable black lung resurgence puts worker safety in spotlight

Preventable black lung resurgence

The scourge of black lung disease has made a major, tragic resurgence in Appalachia, according to researchers for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Their findings, published as a letter in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, show that incidences of severe black lung – known to doctors as progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF – have nearly reached the levels from forty years ago, before coal dust was regulated. PMF was “virtually eradicated,” researchers say, just fifteen years ago. Their chart below illustrates the tragic trend.

“The NIOSH researchers make clear that the alarming increases in this deadly, incurable disease are preventable,” says Mary Vogel, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “They recommend more comprehensive screening for miners. But beyond that, we have to look at and correct dangerous new industry practices and the negligence of mining firms.”

Miners’ advocates point to several possible causes for the increase in black lung:

Longer shifts. According to The Center for Public Integrity, miners now routinely work ten or even twelve-hour shifts or six and seven-day work weeks. Longer hours mean more dust exposure and less recovery time.

Increased exposure to silica dust and other toxic particulates. In their hunger for new coal sources, companies are mining shallower, thinner seams of coals that are surrounded by more rock. The dust from this rock ends up in workers’ lungs. In addition, more powerful, modern mining machinery creates finer – and more dangerous – dust.

Corporate fraud. There is ample evidence that coal firms have fraudulently gamed the system, by placing dust monitors near clean-air intakes.

New standards from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, enacted this summer and to be phased in over the next two years, would make a real difference in addressing the black lung epidemic. The rules will reduce the amount of permissible respirable dust, equip miners with personal dust monitors, and close some current legal loopholes. The coal industry and many coal belt politicians, however, are opposing the new standards in the courts and on the stump.

“It’s time to stop playing politics with peoples’ lives,” says Vogel. “The new NIOSH figures prove what safety advocates have been saying for some time: when it comes to black lung, we’ve been going back to the dark ages.”

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