It is indisputably better to be a coal miner today, in 2015, than in 1969—the year in which Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
Generally known in simpler terms as “the Coal Act,” the law precipitated the establishment of a number of crucial regulatory bodies, including the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)—a sort of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), tailor-made for underground and surface-mining operations.
The act itself, in addition to creating this regulatory framework, laid down a set of nationwide health and safety standards for US miners, who, prior to, suffered some of the highest work-related mortality rates in the country.
The passage of the Coal Act, in conjunction with the establishment of MSHA, is generally credited with the precipitous decline in prevalence of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP, or “black lung”) between 1970 and 1995. This is an important distinction, because while life for the average coal miner today may be measurably better than it was 1969, it is not necessarily so when compared to industry-wide conditions in 1995.
In the two decades since, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a measurable uptick in cases of CWP among workers in America’s coal-mining “hotspots,” anchored in the more mountainous regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. CWP, a pulmonary disease, is contracted primarily through prolonged exposure to coal and rock dust. The current limits detail a “permissible exposure limit of 2 milligrams per cubic meter of respirable coal mine dust,” according to the CDC.
“The cause of this resurgence in disease is likely multifactorial,” the CDC report notes. “Possible explanations include excessive exposure due to increases in coal mine dust levels and duration of exposure (long working hours), and increases in crystalline silica exposure.” The latter is attributable to an industry-wide shift toward what are called “thin coal seams”—smaller deposits with more frequent rock intrusions—increasingly popular now that richer seams have been all but tapped out.
“Concomitant with this is the likelihood of increased potential for exposure to crystalline silica, and associated risk of silicosis, in coal mining,” the report notes, silicosis being another form of pneumoconiosis, colloquially known as “grinder’s asthma,” or “potter’s rot.”
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