The Agency’s Silica Proposal Sets Off Industry Alarm Bells.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposal by its Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to amend current federal standards to “better protect the nation’s miners from health hazards related to exposure to respirable crystalline silica, or silica dust.” The proposed rule change will ensure miners have at least the same level of protections as workers in other industries.

“Unhealthy levels of silica, a carcinogen, and exposures over time cause severe illnesses, including silicosis; progressive massive fibrosis; non-malignant respiratory disease, such as emphysema; kidney disease; and lung cancer,” DOL stated. “Exposure to mixed coal mine dust that contains respirable crystalline silica can lead to the development of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease; multi-dust pneumoconiosis; and progressive massive fibrosis.”

The proposed rule would require mine operators to maintain miners’ Permissible Exposure Limit to respirable crystalline silica at or below 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for a full shift exposure, calculated as an eight-hour time weighted average. If a miner’s exposure exceeds the limit, the proposed rule would require operators to take immediate corrective actions to come into compliance.

“The purpose of this proposed rule is simple: prevent more miners from suffering from debilitating and deadly occupational illnesses by reducing their exposure to silica dust. Silica overexposures have a real-life impact on a miner’s health,” explained Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “Miners like a crusher operator at a California sand and gravel mine or a roof bolter in a West Virginia coal mine should never be forced to choose between preserving their health and providing for themselves and their families. This proposed rule furthers the Mine Act’s clear instruction to prioritize miners’ health.”

In addition to reducing the existing exposure limit, the proposal also includes other requirements to protect miners’ health – such as exposure sampling – and medical surveillance at no cost for metal and nonmetal miners. It would also replace existing outdated requirements for respiratory protection with a standard that reflects the latest advances in respiratory protection technologies and practices.

“A strong new silica dust standard will be an important protection for coal miners across the country,” said Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “The evidence is clear that silica dust is responsible for the ongoing black lung epidemic in Central Appalachia, and that’s why we’ve been fighting for an evidence-based silica standard that curbs exposure to this deadly toxin for more than a decade.”

NSSGA Responds
National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) President and CEO Michael Johnson issued the following statement on the release of the proposed silica rule.

“While we are reviewing the totality of MSHA’s proposed silica rule just released today, the rule contains changes we anticipated, including a lowering of the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) from 100 µg/m3 to 50 µg/m3; the implementation of engineering controls followed by administrative controls to meet the PEL; exposure sampling; and medical surveillance.

“We are pleased to find the proposed rule includes PPE as an acceptable control measure for compliance. However, there are some areas where the proposal needs to be improved. We are disappointed to see that the rule does not include a ‘Table 1,’ similar to OSHA’s silica standard for construction. We also disagree with the inclusion of an action level of 25,” Johnson said.

“NSSGA plans to prepare comments for submission to urge MSHA to make necessary improvements to the rule once the proposal is published in the Federal Register. We will also urge MSHA to provide sufficient time between the final rule and the effective date of the rule for the mining community, particularly the small operators, to come into compliance. We appreciate MSHA’s efforts and look forward to continuing to work with them to improve this proposal,” Johnson concluded.

Following the proposed rule’s publication in the Federal Register, MSHA has commenced public hearings in Arlington, Va., and Denver. The hearings will be open for in-person or online participation. 

MSHA followed up with an announcement that it would extend the public comment period from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, adding 15 days to the process. The extension was in respond to requests from the mining community and other interested parties for additional time to develop and submit comments on the proposal. The agency received and considered requests to extend and to not further delay the comment period.

“Several interested parties requested that the Department of Labor provide additional time to prepare and submit comments. Upon careful consideration, we have decided to extend the comment period for 15 days and to promptly provide notice of the extension to the mining community,” said Williamson.

Industry Impact

“The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced a proposal by MSHA to amend current federal standards to ‘better protect the nation’s miners from health hazards related to exposure to respirable crystalline silica, or silica dust,’” stated Joe McGuire, an industry safety and health consultant, and a frequent contributor to Rock Products. “The proposed rule would require mine operators to maintain miners’ Permissible Exposure Limit, for respirable crystalline silica, at or below 50 µg/m3 for a full shift exposure, calculated as an eight-hour time weighted average.

“The mining industry has long acknowledged the health issues surrounding its workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica and during that time it has taken precautions to protect them,” McGuire continued. “In anticipation of a new MSHA Standard, many companies have gone beyond MSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit of 100 µg/m3 and follow NIOSH’s recommendation and OSHA’s 2015 Silica Rule. Mining companies have been doing sampling, monitoring and testing of workers for silica under the OSHA PEL for years.  

“For mining companies already following the OSHA Rule, the proposed MSHA Standard will have very little impact; those following the current MSHA PEL of 100 µg/m3 will need to update their Respiratory Programs but companies hoping for this rule change to ‘go away’ will probably be disappointed,” McGuire concluded.

MSHA Impact Inspections

The U.S. Department of Labor announced that impact inspections completed by its Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) at 18 mines in 12 states in June 2023 led the agency to issue 242 violations. The agency began impact inspections after the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010, one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

To date, MSHA’s impact inspections in 2023 have identified 1,435 violations, including 411 significant and substantial and 22 unwarrantable failure findings. An S&S violation is reasonably likely to cause a reasonably serious injury or illness. Violations designated as unwarrantable failures occur when an inspec tor finds aggravated conduct that constitutes more than ordinary negligence.

The agency conducts impact inspections at mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to poor compliance history; previous accidents, injuries, and illnesses; and other compliance concerns.

Among the 242 violations MSHA issued in June, the agency evaluated 71 as S&S and found four to have unwarrantable failure findings. The inspections included mines in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The agency inspected operations owned by Holcim, Superior Silica Sands, Tower Rock and Votorantim Cimentos, among others. “The Mine Safety and Health Administration remains troubled by the fact that our impact inspections continue to discover the same hazards we’ve identified as root causes for fatal accidents and that we know can cause serious occupational illnesses,” said Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Chris Williamson. “Mine operators are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment; this includes controlling miners’ exposure to health hazards like silica, preventing safety hazards such as unsafe electrical equipment and potential slips, trips and falls, and ensuring adequate workplace examinations and training.”

One of the inspections in June provides examples of some of the hazards miners face.

At the Superior Silica Sands LLC mine in San Antonio, MSHA conducted an inspection on June 21 and issued 31 violations, 10 of which were found to be S&S. The citations included violations for the following:

  • Unsafe electrical equipment and cables, inadequate workplace examinations, exposed moving machine parts, slip, trip and fall hazards, and inadequate training.
  • Allowing truck drivers to operate vehicles near high-voltage power lines. Three industry workers have suffered fatal injuries in 2023 when their mobile equipment made contact with overhead power lines, leading MSHA to issue electrical safety alerts to raise awareness.

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