Richard Stickler, the Asst. Secretary for MSHA, announced a new educational campaign to increase awareness about black lung disease.  This latest initiative comes in response to surveillance data showing newly diagnosed cases of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) among miners working in Lee County and Wise County, Virginia.  Stickler’s “Control the Dust/Prevent Black Lung” campaign, which includes a personal letter sent to each and every underground coal mine operator in the country, is heavy on hand-holding with mine operators.   My question:

Mr. Stickler, where’s the stick?  His letter starts out strong, saying that black lung disease:

“…can devastate a miners’ quality of life, create a heavy burden on the victim and his or her family, and lead to premature death.  …we know that black lung disease is preventable.”

“The recent findings are certainly unexpected [I disagree, but its his letter] and indicate that preventative measures to protect the health of working miners have been ineffective.  Given the availability of dust control technology to prevent miner exposure to excessive levels of respirable dust, the increase in black lung and PMF cases in unacceptable.”

Excellent! I think I hear a whip getting ready to crack.  Could it be?

Will he be halting production when dust controls are broken?  Assessing “willful and repeated” violations for every overexposures to coal dust?   Levying hefty $$ penalties for violating coal mine dust rules and damaging miners’ lungs?

Nah! 

Mr. Stickler announced:

“During this initiative, MSHA will distribute focused health education and training materials to mine operators; provide on-site interaction with miners on various health-related topics; monitor the health-topics portion of training conducted by mine operators for their miners; and conduct targeted workshops on controlling respirable coal mine dust.”

I see.  Lots of nicey-nice compliance assistance stuff, but NO sticks.

The Asst. Secretary did go on to remind mine operators of their responsibilities, such as maintaining the dust control methods stipulated in their ventilation plan, conducting adequate pre-shift exams, and immediately repairing damaged dust controls (e.g., water sprays, dust collectors, shrouds.)  But remember, these are things that coal mine operators are already required to do under the law.

I’ve bemoaned to anyone who will listen about the messed-up scheme that MSHA inspectors must follow before issuing a citation to a mine operator for over-exposing a miner to coal mine dust.  (One part requires the inspector to average the workers’ exposure over 5 shifts, rather than measuring exposure on a single-shift.)  I’ve also written (here) about the Bush Administration’s regulatory agenda, and how MSHA’s plans to reform this messed-up system have been relegated to the action date of “to be determined.”  But today, even with concrete proof of black lung disease in active coal miners, including 11 cases of PMF (specifically, 30 cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP)  — or 9% of the 328 coal miners screened – with one case of PMF in a 39-year old miner, and four cases of PMF in men aged 46 or younger), this Administration rejects the idea of using a tough enforcement stick. 

Despite my frequent criticism of MSHA, my abuse is not directed at the dedicated inspectors and health specialists who really care about protecting miners from disease and injury.  I have a lot of admiration for staff in CMS&H health division who’ve labored from Administration to Administration trying to revamp the regulations and enforcement policies so that CWP and silicosis can truly be eliminated once and for all.  My discontent is largely targeted at the Department of Labor’s leadership: Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Deputy Secretary/Solicitor of Labor Howard Radzely and Acting Solicitor Jonathan Snare, and their comrades at OMB and the White House.  They need balls like the Chemical Safety Board’s Carolyn Merritt, who has the tough-minded attitude that employers who knowingly put their workers at risk and repeatedly violate safety and health regulations, should be punished.  For me, I’m not opposed to a punishment that includes not being allowed to operate a coal mine if you can’t get your act together to control respirable coal dust and silica at all times.  No more hand-holding, nicey-nice workshops.  Use the enforcement stick. 

A case of progressive massive fibrosis diagnosed in 2006 in a 39-year old U.S. coal miner is a national disgrace.

Celeste Monforton, MPH is a Lecturer and Research Associate at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked for 11 years at the US Dept of Labor, including six years at MSHA (1996-2001).  This post is dedicated to Mike South, Terry Howard and all the nation’s miners who thought the promise of the 1977 Mine Act meant a life without debilitating lung disease.

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