What happens when a miner is exposed to silica dust every day on the job?

Several years ago, NPR reporter Howard Berkes described the suffering of former miner Danny Smith who was dying of silica-related black lung disease, or Pulmonary Massive Fibrosis (PMF): “His lung tissue is dying so fast, his respiratory therapist says, it just peels away. ”

Smith had only worked in the mines for 12 years and was in his 40’s. He was diagnosed with PMF at age 39.

Miners like Danny Smith often need lung transplants to survive, but even transplants only extend their lives for a few years.

Danny Smith is one of thousands of miners who get sick and die ever year from exposure to silica dust.  The cause of PMF is not coal dust as much as silica dust that comes largely from drilling through rock, which contains quartz, to get to the coal. As mines have played out over the last decades, miners have spent more and more time drilling through quartz rock to get to the coal.

In response to this growing epidemic of lung disease, the Mine Safety and Health Administration last week issued a regulation reducing miners allowable exposure to silica dust and other measures such as requiring mine operators to use engineering controls to prevent miners’ overexposures to silica dust, using dust samplings and environmental evaluations to monitor exposure and establishing medical surveillance programs.

But, if you read a recent Bloomberg Law headline, you might be tempted to think that the real victims of  this crisis are not miners, but mine operators:

Mines Face New Hurdles in Protecting Workers From Silica Dust

Oh no!

Reading on:

Tougher federal limits on miners’ exposure to toxic silica dust are creating a slew of compliance challenges for mine operators, from new air sampling and notice requirements to medical monitoring mandates….

These and other changes may be particularly burdensome for smaller mine operators, attorneys said.

“A lot of small miners are going to have a pretty good shock to the system,” said Nicholas Scala, chair of Conn Maciel Carey LLP’s MSHA practice group in Columbus, Ohio.

The Humanity!

Contrast this with an excellent article (and headline!) about MSHA’s new silica rule by Kathleen Rest, a frequent Confined Space contributor and Senior Fellow in Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability:

New Safeguard Strengthens Protections for Miners’ Health

According to Rest, “That is good news for the health of our nation’s miners – and, by extension, for all us who benefit from their labor which provides the materials that go into the devices, electronics, appliances, and other products we use on a daily basis (see here).”

Rest goes on to describe the some of the rule’s “important new provisions,” or, as Bloomberg describes them, “a slew of compliance challenges for mine operators.”  No mention by Bloomberg of how the “slew of compliance challenges” will save miners’ lives.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The bottom line, of course, is that workplace safeguards (also known as “regulations” or “standards”) aren’t about making employers happy. They are about making workers safe. They are about preventing work environments where miners don’t end up literally coughing up pieces of their lungs after a few years of work.

In other words, the “burdens” on employers are actually protections for workers.

Employers and their associations always cry after an MSHA or OSHA standard is issued. They always claim to be concerned about small businesses, when it’s really the big businesses and their associations and lawyers (who not coincidentally are causing the most death and disease) that are doing the most whining and filing the lawsuits. Lawsuits that almost always fail.

That’s all to be expected. It’s part of the landscape.

But do also have to live with supposedly objective news organizations uncritically backing up the industry’s inevitable whining with these sympathetic headlines and articles?

Of course, I’d never attempt to sway public opinion on worker safety. So you decide:

“Good News for the Health of Our Nation’s Miners” or “Mines Face New Hurdles in Protecting Workers From Silica Dust?”


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