U.S. miners are getting sicker younger. A new rule limits toxic silica dust exposure

The Biden administration agreed Tuesday to limit workers' exposure to toxic silica dust, a common byproduct in U.S. mining operations.

The federal rule will reduce the allowable level of silica dust when workers drill for coal and other ores. The public health impact of the new rule is promising: It would avert an estimated 1,067 deaths and 3,746 silica-related illnesses, according to a Labor Department news release.

Chris Williamson, assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement, the silica dust restriction "has been a long time in the making, and the nation’s miners deserve its health protections.”

“No miner should ever have to sacrifice their health or lungs to provide for their family,” he said.

Not your grandfather's black lung: Federal rule seeks to save coal miners from silica dust

Officials and experts have known for decades that inhaling silica dust, a carcinogen also known as crystalline silica, produces permanent scarring in the lungs and limits lung capacity. It can lead to a slew of severe respiratory issues, known as pneumoconioses, which don’t have a cure and can be fatal.

Exposure to silica and coal dust is a contributing factor for black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, and a more severe form of progressive massive fibrosis. This can result in lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and kidney disease.

Coal workers and other miners, in recent decades, have developed severe respiratory issues at younger ages. Advocates say advanced drilling technology means younger workers are cutting into more layers of rock containing silica with thinner coal seams in geological formations. The advances have exposed them to more of the dangerous particles.

The final rule, first proposed by government regulators in July, reduces the allowable silica dust levels in mining operations to 50 micrograms per cubic meter, with an action level at 25 micrograms, for an eight-hour workday. It's akin to a particle the size of a short strand of hair appearing once a day, in fine dust form, within the space of a cardboard box, one expert said. Mine operators will be mandated to use engineering controls to prevent exposure to silica dust, the rule says. Operators will use dust samplings and environmental evaluations to monitor exposures.

In a news release, the United Mine Workers of America, the labor organization representing the miners, said the rule significantly reduces silica dust exposure and improves early detection of related diseases.

“This is a critical step to keeping miners safe and healthy not just day-to-day, but for their full lifetime,” Cecil Roberts, the miners union president, said in a statement. "Now, our focus shifts to holding mining companies accountable.”

Federal officials are also pushing for these limits in other sectors, among metal and nonmetal operators and aiming to establish medical surveillance programs for periodic health exams at no cost to miners. This replicates the longstanding federal Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program.

Coal workers make up a declining share of American miners, about 55,000 people nationwide, compared with nearly 200,000 workers mining metal, nonmetal, stone, sand and gravel.

The rule also updates respiratory protection standards for workers. In addition to silica dust, the rule applies to diesel particulate matter and asbestos, federal officials said.

The new limits will be published Thursday in the Federal Register and the rule takes effect at coal mine operators one year after publication. It will be the standard for metal and nonmetal operators in 2026.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Toxic silica dust mining restrictions approved by Biden administration