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New silica dust rule means coal, gravel and stone mines will face more safety regulations

Tree of miners' faces at New Beginnings Pulmonary Rehab clinic in Norton, Va. These are the men who have come to the clinic for help managing symptoms related to Black Lung disease. Some have passed away.

Posted on April 24, 2024

The Department of Labor recently released a new rule that significantly lowers how much silica dust is legally allowed inside mines. The old limit was 100 micrograms per cubic meter. It will now be 50.

This comes at a time when black lung rates among coal miners in central Appalachia are the highest they’ve been since the 1990s. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 coal miners in this region will get black lung.

Companies will be required to send in dust samples every three months. This isn’t new for coal mines. What is new is how much silica dust is allowed in those samples. Another big change is that metal, gravel and stone quarries will now have to comply with these silica standards too.

“So these are not the kind of operations that have really had the resources or the wherewithal to focus on these issues before,” said Emily Sarver is a professor of mining engineering at Virginia Tech.

“But they’ll need to do a lot of work to get up to speed on silica monitoring and on dust controls,” Sarver said.

These companies will also have to now offer health surveillance for workers. This rule also includes workplaces that mine rare earth elements.

Some industry advocates say, these protections go too far.

“We do not have the crisis that you read about in coal,” said John Ulizio, with the National Sand, Stone and Gravel Association. He some sand and gravel quarries already offer health screenings for their employees and conduct dust sampling. He also pointed out that some workplaces in his industry are also overseen by OSHA, which already lowered silica limits to 50 mg/m3.

“These MSHA requirements are new to us,” Ulizio said.

He said he would have liked to see the new MSHA rule similar to how OSHA regulates silica, by only targeting workers for health surveillance who are likely to be exposed to silica dust.

He said compared with miners in Appalachia, where it’s estimated that 1 in 5 will get black lung, his industry is safer.

“It would have been reported to us if we had a crisis. I mean, we would have heard about it,” Ulizio said.

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, about 7 percent of stone, gravel and sand companies have silica dust levels that exceed the current limit (100 mg/m3).

Once the new rule goes into effect this June, the number of quarries and mines that exceed the legal limits could be even higher, as companies begin regular monitoring.

Workers at mines where silica exceeds the new limit may still be allowed to remain on the worksite as long as they wear respirators.


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