While the initial proposal indicated it would cut the mandated level in half, the final rule indicates a 25% reduction in the permitted levels of respirable coal dust from 2 to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) of air; it also cuts in half the standard from 1 to 0.5 mg/m3 for certain mine entries and miners with CWP.

Additionally, according to MSHA, its new outlines require immediate action when dust levels are high, creating an interesting situation to say the least, as some technologies still used to measure exposure take days, even weeks, to return results.

Much of miners’ exposure levels are now determined using sampling, and more of it will now need to be performed with the final rule. MSHA will now require more frequent sampling of those areas known to have relatively high dust levels, such as those closest to the production area.

Once the samples are collected, federal officials are also changing the rules on how they are read. The mandates include an amendment to the method of averaging dust samples, which previously allowed miners on some shifts to be exposed to levels above the standard.

In addition to requiring sampling for the full-shift miner (not just an eight-hour measurement as outlined in the previous law), inspectors will now issue citations to mines for any single full-shift sample its staff collects that is at or exceeds the citation level.

Per the final rule, dust samples will now need to be taken when mines are operating at 80% of production, up from the previous 50% requirement; the agency said samples collected at the 80% level are “more representative of actual working conditions.”

Finally, in addition to enhancing its medical surveillance of miners, the new outlines will require mine operators to conduct thorough on-shift examinations of dust controls and verify controls with written certification.

The agency said in a public announcement held April 24 at a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) facility in Morgantown, West Virginia, that while the prevalence of black lung dipped between the 1970s and 1990s, the current numbers of those afflicted with lung diseases such as CWP, emphysema and progressive massive fibrosis —collectively referred to as black lung — from prolonged exposure to respirable coal mine dust are concerning.

According to NIOSH estimates, more than 76,000 miners have died since 1968 as the result of the disease, and more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits have been paid out to coal miners disabled by black lung and their survivors. Evidence indicates that miners, including young miners, are continually being diagnosed with the disease.

The rule has been a long time coming; MSHA first published a proposed rule in October 2010 and then held seven public hearings on the topic. It subsequently extended the comment period three times and received about 2,000 pages of comments from industry, labor, public health professionals, academia and others.

As expected, the comments from across the industry have been swift and pointed. The National Mining Association (NMA), for one, called the announcement a disappointment and said that federal officials missed the mark. “Today’s announcement represents a lost opportunity to provide better protection for those who need it and more job security for all our coal miners,” NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn said. Murray Energy said it will file a lawsuit against the Department of Labor.

MSHA has published a complete copy of the final rule on its website at www.msha.gov/endblacklung/.