Respiratory Disease Resurges Among Coal Miners

What should be done when old workplace problems reemerge decades later? This is a question regulatory agencies, industry associations and workplaces have been asking recently about coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) (often referred to as black lung disease). The disease, which was very common among coal miners until the 1970s when laws were put in place to deal with coal dust in mines, decreased for decades before increasing again after 2000.

According to researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 15 years ago, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), an advanced form of black lung disease that is debilitating and has no cure, had practically been eradicated. In the journal Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, NIOSH researchers write:

Since that time [15 years ago], the national prevalence of PMF identified through the CWHSP [Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program] has increased; the rate of increase in the central Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia has been especially pronounced. Excessive inhalation of coal mine dust is the sole cause of PMF in working coal miners, so this increase can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition.

The researchers go on to state that they found the rate of PMF among the coal miners they examined was the highest seen since the early 1970s, a pretty alarming statistic.

Respiratory Disease, Coal Mining
In the late 1960s, concern about black lung disease led to new regulations of coal dust in mines. Photo: MSHA

Other researchers at the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center explain that while exact reasons for the increase in the prevalence of the disease aren’t yet clear, evidence shows that smaller mines in certain areas of Appalachia have the greatest number of PMF cases. The researchers suggest that these small facilities aren’t necessarily employing all available safety precautions (such as the best dust suppression systems) or using proper air sampling procedures.

New Safety Rules for Mines

The health of miners has received attention from organizations like NIOSH for many years. Through its Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP), NIOSH has monitored the health of coal miners using screening procedures such as chest x-rays and other exams. When NIOSH began observing an increase in CWP and PMF, concern rose about the safety of those working in mines. Many of these workers spent their entire careers working underground, and if uncontrolled dust hazards were the culprit, something needed to be done. 

In response to this alarming increase in lung diseases among coal miners, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently issued a new rule whose goal is to reduce harmful dust exposure for miners. The rule will be implemented in stages over a two-year period. The first stage became effective August 1 and changes the way dust sampling is conducted and reported, as well as expands the requirements for worker chest x-rays to include surface miners, reports Safety and Health Magazine.

A recent survey of air samples received by MSHA found the majority (99 percent) of mines tested were compliant with dust regulations. Whether the rule will impact the rates of lung disease among workers may be seen over the coming years.

Dust in the Workplace

For businesses in the mining industry, these new rules related to dust control and black lung disease might directly impact operations. For workplaces in other industries where coal dust isn’t a problem, these rule changes may not receive a lot of attention. The health and safety issues faced by the mining industry, though, should serve as an important reminder of the importance of respiratory protection and dust suppression in other industries.

In construction work (and in mining), silica dust from rock can cause serious lung diseases. In manufacturing environments that work with metal, metal dust can cause respiratory problems and even lead to combustible dust explosions. In old buildings, asbestos dust and other contaminants can lower indoor air quality. These hazards obviously range in severity and in the ways they impact health and safety. Nevertheless, workplaces need to determine whether dust hazards exist and what can be done about them.

In workplaces where dust from manufacturing and other work processes is present, dust collection and suppression systems are often necessary. Other methods of controlling dust such as strict housekeeping measures may be needed.

Workers also must be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for any respiratory hazards that require this kind of protection. This PPE could include N95 respirators, air-purifying respirators or atmosphere supplying respirators. If a worker needs to use this kind of protection, he or she needs to receive thorough training in how to use it and have a supervised fit test to make sure the respirator doesn’t leak.

Safety LabelIf workers often forget to wear respiratory PPE, use visual reminders like safety signs and labels. Take time to educate workers about the respiratory hazards they face. Oftentimes, people don’t understand the severity of health issues they could encounter down the road by not taking proper safety precautions.

Stay Focused on Safety

If there’s one thing we can take away from the recent occupational illnesses experienced by coal miners, it’s that safety can never be overlooked. Just because a disease was controlled for a long period doesn’t mean the hazard that caused the disease is gone. Hazards, even ones we’ve known about for a long time, still need to be treated like the dangers they are. In the case of coal dust, taking shortcuts related to hazard mitigation can lead to lifelong illnesses—or life-ending illnesses—for many workers.

When an injury or illness like black lung disease is preventable, all possible precautions must be taken to avoid it. Sometimes the safety measures needed for prevention may seem costly or time consuming, but in the long run, those costs will pay off. 

For more information about respiratory protection, read Respiratory Protection – Understanding OSHA Standard 1910.134. To learn more about combustible dust hazards, take a look at the SlideShare below.

19 Ways to Deal With Combustible Dust from Creative Safety Supply

Additional Resources