Nearly 50 years after the passage of the federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, significant occupational dangers for coal miners remain. As the anniversary of the Sago Mine Disaster approaches, and on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Farmington Mine Disaster, Michael McCawley from the West Virginia University School of Public Health notes black lung cases are on the rise and silicosis diagnoses persist. His research has been inspired by these and other mine tragedies in an effort to make coal mines safe and healthy places to work.
On researching mine safety: “This past year, I served on a panel for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, investigating why more and more miners are contracting black lung disease. We concluded there was likely a gap in the administration of coal-mine-dust regulations, especially those that covered slope mining, a kind of mining that may involve cutting a lot of rock to reach a deeply buried coal seam. Rock contains silica. Cutting it generates dust that is toxic because of its silica content. Inhaling this toxic dust is likely partly—or totally—responsible for black lung. But companies only have to sample dust when they are extracting coal, not as they are cutting the rock to access it. That means the period when silica exposure peaks is not reflected in the data they collect.”
On the importance of mine safety: “My friends in the United Mineworkers of America are quick to remind me that the regulations of today are written in the blood of miners of the past. As our panel from the National Academies learned, knowing what we should do is not sufficient. We have to actually do it, and we need to remain vigilant.”
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