The Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (DOL OIG) advised the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to lower the exposure limit for silica to a safer level. The DOL OIG made this among other recommendations in a Nov. 16 report titled, “MSHA Needs To Improve Efforts To Protect Coal Miners From Respirable Crystalline Silica.”
The MSHA first established the silica exposure limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air more than 50 years ago. Since then, OSHA has lowered the silica exposure limit to 50 μg/m³, but the report states that this level is out of date. OSHA and NIOSH both warn in the standards that 50 μg/m³ is the lowest feasible limit, not the safest.
In fact, on June 23, OSHA adjusted its own silica rule – employers are now required to assess exposures for employees who will be occupationally exposed to respirable crystalline silica, at or above the action level (AL) of 25 μg/m3 for 30 or more days per year.
The report highlights the recent increase in progressive massive fibrosis, which is the most severe form of black lung disease. The cause is linked to a “high-volume mechanized mining of decreasing deposits of coal, which releases more silica dust,” the report notes.
Effects of Silica on Coal Miners
Coal miners were three times as likely to have black lung disease from 2010 to 2014, compared with 1995 to 1999. The DOL OIG points to respirable crystalline silica as the reason for the increase.
Also in the report, the DOL OIG recommended that MSHA should establish a separate standard that would allow the agency to issue citations and penalties for violations of the silica exposure limit. Additionally, it urges MSHA to increase the rate of inspector samples when needed to enhance its sampling program.
MSHA responded to the report in an Oct. 27 statement from administrator David Zatezalo. He wrote that his agency does not agree with the recommendation of lowering the silica exposure limit or penalizing operators solely for exposure violations. He then added that MSHA does plan to issue a proposed rule on exposure to respirable quartz, which is one of the most common types of respirable silica.
The response states that the agency will study the final recommendation from the DOL OIG, including a risk-based approach to see if sampling needs to increase under certain mining conditions.
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