The Nation’s Coal Miners Get a Rare Piece of Good News

MSHA’s new silica rule—recommended 50 years ago—could save thousands from black lung, although advocates worry about enforcement.

Kim Kelly

A young girl points a pink Polaroid at the camera as a man in a baseball cap looks on, laughing. They're in a living room cluttered with toys and photos.
Miner John Moore (right), 42, smiles at his daughter in their home in Beckley, W.Va., on March 16, 2023. Moore is one of a growing number of young miners diagnosed with black lung, an incurable disease. Photo by Laura Saunders

Today, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officially published a new federal safety rule aimed at reducing the amount of silica dust that coal miners breathe during their long shifts underground. As In These Times reported in a 2023 investigation, the prior standard allowed miners to be exposed to as much as 100 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter, which was twice as high as the silica limit for workers in all other industries. The new rule slashes the limit to 50 micrograms — a level first recommended in 1974.

Silica is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and has been identified by experts as the leading cause of a growing epidemic of black lung cases among coal miners in Central Appalachia. The Department of Labor estimates that the new rule will result in about 1,067 lifetime avoided deaths and 3,746 lifetime avoided cases of silica-related illnesses.

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It is unconscionable that our nation’s miners have worked without adequate protection from silica dust despite it being a known health hazard for decades,” said Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su in a statement. Today, the Department of Labor has taken an important action to finally reduce miners’ exposure to toxic silica dust and protect them from suffering from preventable diseases.”

The new rule will require coal companies to monitor miners’ work environment for silica dust, report overexposures to MSHA and take immediate corrective action. Mines must also employ engineering controls to reduce dust exposure. 

The rule’s enforcement provisions aren’t everything that advocates had hoped for. National Black Lung Association Vice President Vonda Robinson tells Grist that she is pretty upset” that it relies heavily on self-monitoring by mining companies. Her husband is dying of black lung disease at age 57.

It took five decades of organizing, lobbying, and pressure to get to this point. NIOSH sounded the alarm on silica back in 1974 and recommended lowering the standard to 50 micrograms.

As the rule is rolled out, advocates are also calling on MSHA to add stronger criteria for issuing citations and create clear penalties for violation, as well as provisions to temporarily shut down mines that are in violation. 

Penalties are a particular sticking point; at a public hearing in Beckley, W. Va. last summer, attorney Sam Petsonk was adamant that the agency needed to beef up its enforcement plans. A rule with no penalties is no rule at all,” Petsonk said. ​“The only thing that mining companies understand is money. They don’t understand or appreciate the blood and the lives of miners, because if they did, they would have protected miners willingly over the last several decades.”

According to data that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shared with In These Times in 2023, black lung cases have become much more prevalent in recent decades among younger miners and those who have spent less time underground. In coal-producing states like Kentucky and West Virginia, black lung afflicts more than 1 in 8 coal miners who have been working underground for 20 – 24 years, rising from about 1 in 30 a decade ago. For an 18-year-old who heads into the mines straight from high school, those numbers would put them at serious risk of the disease before they turn 40. Rates have also increased among even younger workers and those who’ve worked underground as little as 15 – 19 years —and heavy exposure can speed up the timeline even further. 

This is not new information. Howard Berkes, a member of the Public Health Watch board of directors and former NPR investigations correspondent, first documented the rise in black lung in a landmark 2018 expose, and has closely followed its developments ever since. As he told NPR, the new rule has come about 50 years later than it should. NIOSH sounded the alarm on silica back in 1974 and recommended lowering the standard to 50 micrograms to prevent adverse effects of crystalline silica.” It took five decades of organizing, lobbying, and pressure from coal miners and their families, the UMWA and USW, advocacy groups like the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, the Black Lung Association and Appalachian Voices, and health experts to get to this point — and as many of them are quick to point out, it’s still just a start.

​“The only thing that mining companies understand is money. They don’t understand or appreciate the blood and the lives of miners, because if they did, they would have protected miners willingly over the last several decades.”

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center’s director of policy Rebecca Shelton tells Grist she is troubled that MSHA “[prioritized] the economics of the industry over the lives of miners” in rejecting a lower exposure limit because it would be too costly to mining companies.

Petsonk believes the administration should have looked more closely into technology like dust monitors that can automatically shut off mining machines when dust levels are too high.

He also worries that the plan is subject to political winds. Under this administration, we believe MSHA will effectively audit [companies’ self-reports],” Petsonk says. This administration is more forcefully, creatively and successfully committed to empowering miners than any MSHA Administration throughout history. … But future administrations could neglect such oversight — leaving the foxes to guard the henhouses much of the time.”

Congress … made clear in the Mine Act that miners’ health and safety must always be our first priority and concern,” MSHA Assistant Secretary Williamson said in a statement. To further advance this directive, MSHA is committed to working together with everyone in the mining community to implement this rule successfully. No miner should ever have to sacrifice their health or lungs to provide for their family.”

Leaders of the UMWA and the Steelworkers joined workers, public health advocates and government officials in Uniontown, Pa., on Tuesday to celebrate the announcement of the new rule. Obviously, we want it to be better,” UMWA spokesperson Erin Bates told Grist. But no matter what, more health and safety is better for our miners.”

Any program, Petsonk says, will only be as strong as the political mandate from the Department of Labor and the aggressiveness of rank-and-file miner participation. That matters more than anything. 

Ultimately, no workers’ rights regulation will be effective if workers are not adequately empowered to demand their rights on the job.”

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Kim Kelly is an independent labor journalist and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Asbestos killed her grandfather, a former steelworker, and she hopes to help prevent others from losing their own loved ones to occupational disease.

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