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MSHA News Release No. 95-007
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452

January 31, 1995

LABOR SECRETARY AIMS TO END BLACK LUNG

Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich today announced his intention to appoint an advisory committee to make recommendations for the elimination of black lung and silicosis among coal miners.

"In the 25 years that the federal government has regulated dust levels in coal mines, coal miners' dust exposure and the devastating toll of lung disease have declined sharply," Reich said. "However, despite the knowledge and technology now available to control this hazard, too many miners still run a risk of developing occupational lung disease. The time is right for industry, labor and government to join in a combined effort to bring this disease to an end."

Reich said he will select seven individuals for the committee: one representing labor, one representing industry, and five persons--including the chairman--with no economic interest in the mining industry. Once appointed, the advisory committee is expected to convene early this year and deliver its recommendations within 180 days.

"The committee will provide a collective expertise to address the complex issues involved in ending occupational lung disease among coal miners," Reich said.

Since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 set limits for respirable dust in coal mines, average dust levels in underground coal mines have declined from 8.0 milligrams per cubic meter to the current standard of 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter.

However, recent medical evidence indicates that miners continue to develop the debilitating effects of black lung and silicosis. Black lung is a commonly used term for lung disease resulting from excessive exposure to respirable coal mine dust, while silicosis results specifically from quartz dust (respirable crystalline silica). In severe cases, both black lung and silicosis can be disabling.

"We will be asking the advisory committee to address the full range of respirable dust issues," said Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "That includes the available means to control the dust, improved dust monitoring, the exposure limits necessary to prevent disease, the role of the miner in dust monitoring and the adequacy of the programs under which mine operators take samples to determine the dust levels to which miners are exposed."

Under existing Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rules, mine operators are required control the amount of dust in the mine atmosphere, to obtain MSHA approval of those measures, and to monitor through sampling the amount of hazardous coal mine dust in areas where miners work or travel. If samples by either the mine operator or MSHA show noncompliance with the dust standard, MSHA issues a citation and requires the mine operator to correct the problem.

The 1969 law also established a black lung disability benefits program to compensate coal miners and the dependents of miners who have been disabled by occupational dust exposure. In the 25 years since the program was established, federal black lung benefit payments have totaled more than $30 billion.

Currently, the annual cost to the federal government of black lung disability benefits exceeds $1.3 billion, with 75,000 former miners receiving benefits.

The U.S. coal mining industry today employs roughly 140,000 miners, of whom more than 50,000 work underground. In recent years, U.S. coal production has reached record levels, with the value of coal mined totaling nearly $19 billion in 1993. Coal provides over half of U.S. electric power nationwide.

Notice of the Secretary's intent to establish an advisory committee is in today's Federal Register. Comments from interested members of the public are requested by Feb. 15, 1995. Copies of the Federal Register notice may be obtained from MSHA's Office of Standards, Regulations, and Variances, telephone (703) 235-1910.