Less than one month after receiving a petition from the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center to issue a standard to protect miners’ from exposure to respirable coal mine dust and silica, MSHA’s acting chief Greg Wagner, MD, MPH, sent a response, saying:

“…MSHA is committed to issuing regulations on respirable coal mine dust that comport with the letter and spirit of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.”

Wagner’s promise is profound, and sets a high bar for MSHA.   Using the phrase “letter and spirit” is gutsy, letting miners and the public know that MSHA’s top leaders are driven to fulfill a public health promise made 40 years ago:  U.S. workers should be able to work their entire career in the mining industry without suffering illness or disability from respirable dust.  Wagner’s reference to the letter and spirit dates back to the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act [note that “health” comes before “safety”]

The statute says:

“it is the purpose of this title to provide, to the greatest extent possible, that the working conditions in each underground coal mine are sufficiently free of respirable dust concentrations in the mine atmosphere to permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire adult working life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupational-related disease during or at the end of such period.

In Dr. Wagner’s written response to the ACLC’s petition, he writes:

“…the Department of Labor and MSHA have placed a very high priority on preventing lung disease from coal mine work by lowering miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust and silica.  Rulemakings related to lowering miners’ exposure to both respirable coal mine dust and silica are on the Agency’s regulatory agenda.  The Federal Government’s next Semiannual Regulatory Agenda is scheduled to be issued in October 2009, and it will contain MSHA’s timetable for addressing specific issues associated with respirable coal mine dust and silica rulemakings that are of interest to you.”

In May of this year, a few months before Dr. Wagner was on-board as the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy,  MSHA officials indicated that progress on respirable coal mine dust regulations would begin in 2011.   2011?  2011??  That was discouraging, very discouraging.  

But now, we have reason for optimism.  As I read between the lines, Wagner’s letter suggests that his MSHA team has a more robust regulatory plan to prevent dust-related disease and impairment, certainly more ambitious than action in 2011.   His reference to the “letter and spirit” of the law reinforces it.  The ACLC, many coal miners and their families, and public health advocates who support the ACLC’s  petition are eager to make that 40 year old promise a reality.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is an assistant research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She was a special assistant to former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, who also set the bar high for issuing comprehensive regulations to protect miners’ from respirable coal dust.  The staff work (by GN, RS, BT) was exceptional and timely, but that was not enough, it often is not.