Federal audit finds mine safety agency not doing enough to protect coal miners from silica | Energy and Environment
The OIG found that MSHA’s silica exposure limit is out of date as the agency has maintained essentially the same limit established in the 1960s.
MSHA, the OIG observed, does not issue citations or fines for excess silica exposures alone since its exposure limit for silica is tied to its exposure limit for respirable coal mine dust. The OIG also noted that MSHA’s silica sampling protocols may be too infrequent to protect miners since MSHA only sampled mines for silica levels during quarterly inspections of underground coal mines and semi-annual inspections of surface mines as required by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, likely missing fluctuations in silica levels stemming from changes in geology and worker movement.
The OIG report noted recent studies that found large clusters of miners with less than 20 years of mining tenure in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung disease. A 2018 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report, based on X-ray data collected by NIOSH’s Coal Workers Health Surveillance Program from working underground miners from 1970 to 2017, found that prevalence of severe black lung in central Appalachia was as high (5%) as it’s been since record-keeping began in the early 1970s.
“Even though MSHA has known its silica limit did not align with current recommended standards, it has continued to maintain essentially the same silica limit established in the 1960s,” wrote Elliot P. Lewis, the assistant inspector general for audit who authored the OIG’s report.
The OIG also observed that MSHA has spent more than two decades in rulemaking without changing its silica exposure limit, starting and restarting rulemaking efforts for silica regulations at least five times (1996, 1998, 2003, 2010 and 2014), taking far longer than the four-year average for rulemaking among federal agencies, per a Government Accountability Office study.
MSHA’s coal mine silica exposure limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air remains double the limit of 50 that NIOSH recommended the Department of Labor adopt in 1974. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, MSHA’s sibling agency that oversees compliance for non-mine workplace toxin exposure, lowered its silica exposure limit to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 2016.
Coal mines are capable of meeting the recommended silica limit because they already have, the OIG report pointed out, noting that dust samples collected and analyzed by MSHA inspectors from 1990 to 2019 showed a drop in silica levels.
“While the lower levels in recent years can reduce risks to miners, the overall number of black lung related deaths over the past five decades and increase in coal miners diagnosed with black lung disease are alarming,” Lewis wrote. “With no legal requirement for mines to keep silica levels well below MSHA’s current limit, which scientific evidence has shown to be unsafe, workers in coal mines with silica levels above recommended safety limits continue to be at risk of developing life-threatening health problems.”
But MSHA assistant secretary David Zatezalo wrote to Lewis last month informing him that MSHA could not yet agree with the OIG’s recommendations to adopt a lower legal exposure limit for silica in coal mines and establish a separate standard for silica that allows MSHA to issue a citation and monetary penalty for limit violations. Zatezalo wrote that MSHA would issue proposed rules to address the recommendations but could not “presume the substance” of a proposed or final rule pending comments and testimony received during the rulemaking process.
That didn’t satisfy the OIG, which noted the MSHA’s quarter-century history of starting and restarting silica regulation rulemaking efforts.
“The OIG is concerned that beginning the rulemaking process anew without considering the abundance of evidence MSHA has already collected will result in miners’ unnecessarily continued exposure to unsafe levels of silica,” Lewis wrote.
MSHA will study the OIG’s recommendation to increase the frequency of inspector samples where needed, Zatezalo said.
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