Long-term, repeated inhalation of coal dust can cause pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease. The respiratory condition has been linked to 76,000 miners’ deaths since 1968. Disease awareness, industry regulations and mine safety policies reduced black lung coal mining injuries significantly over the last several decades, although federal officials have been concerned existing precautions aren’t as effective as they could be.
The disease has rebounded among coal miners in some areas of Appalachia, which includes West Virginia. Black lung has cropped up in small Appalachian mines, with particularly aggressive strains detected among young miners. Extended work shifts, dust-generating machinery and high silica dust exposure are blamed.
New federal rules to protect miners roll out over the next two years starting in August. Industry officials want the regulations delayed until 2016. The regulations would require mining companies to obtain new equipment to monitor dust and take mine dust samples more often to cut the exposure rate by 25 percent.
Under the new rules, which haven’t changed significantly for four decades, mining companies would have to respond to high dust readings. Respirators would be used to safeguard miners, and work would be slowed to keep dust levels down. The National Mining Association and coal companies filed a request to have a federal appeals court review the “flawed” regulations and permit industry input.
Coal company representatives complain that compliance may not be possible in time to meet the federal deadline. Current dust monitoring methods involve lab tests. The government is giving mines until February 2016 to convert to the use of on-site monitoring devices.
Safety measures can’t be enacted too soon for victims of coal mining injuries. Even one instance of black lung can ruin a miner’s health or deprive a family of a loved one. Mining companies and operators who fail to protect workers from a known hazard can be held liable for safety negligence.