Whitesburg KY

Advances in technology offer hope

New equipment, however, is hard to wear underground and expensive

Nearly four decades after Congress put limits on dust levels in mines, tiny particles of coal dust breathed by miners have killed more than 70,000 of them across the nation. But now advances in technology could potentially help cut the numbers of miners suffering from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – blacklung disease – and its symptoms. Personal dust monitors – or PDMs – allow miners to check dust levels as they work, enabling them to deal with problems more quickly.

Legislation introduced in Congress last week would require miners be equipped with PDMs and allow them to take action if high dust levels are detected. In addition, more advanced respirators worn on miners’ faces promise to provide more protection than the ones most widely available today.

Although the advances could save lives, there are stumbling blocks to their use: The costly PDMs, which the industry and United Mine Workers of America would like to see the government pay for, aren’t widely available. And Joe Lamonica – a former Mine Safety and Health Administration and industry official who is now an industry consultant for putting PDMs to work – estimated that if a manufacturer were to start today, it would take 18 to 24 months to produce the needed quantities.

Many miners often don’t use the respirators now supplied by companies, saying they are uncomfortable. Dennis O’Dell, administrator of health and safety for the UMW, said the ultimate way to protect miners’ lungs – and cut the chances of an underground explosion – is to reduce dust levels.

“You’re creating a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

In November 1996, a federal commission directed to come up with a plan for eliminating black lung issued its report, recommending among other things that MSHA continue to push research on ways to continuously monitor dust levels. More than a decade later, the research and evaluation process finally is nearing an end.

Dust sampling is done with pumps on the belts of miners who work in high-dust areas. The pumps are supposed to run throughout a miner’s shift, accumulating airborne particles on a filter, which is later removed and sent to a lab.

The PDM, which would point to problems much more quickly, is part of the miner’s cap-lamp assembly. It provides a running average of dust exposure during the shift, with the information displayed on top of the battery case. In response to those readings, miners and managers can deal immediately with high dust readings by adjusting working conditions – using new drill bits, increasing water sprays or adjusting ventilation curtains, for example.

Not only can the data protect miners during their shifts, it can be sent to regulators monitoring compliance with current federal standards. O’Dell said sharing the data with MSHA presumably would reduce miners’ fears of retaliation for reporting excessive dust to supervisors. “If the operators threaten miners, or if miners are overexposed, citations could be issued.”

PDMs have been tested in a few mines around the country, worn by miners, by MSHA personnel and by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Ed Thimons, head of NIOSH’s respiratory hazards control branch in Pittsburgh, said the testing has shown that the devices are reliable and resistant to tampering, and that miners are willing to use them.

“We have seen miners relocating themselves to see how that impacts exposure,” he said. He said he thinks PDMs are “very close” to being ready for commercial use. But new federal rules must be written before PDMs can be used underground on a widespread basis.

Before that happens, labor and industry need to determine whether the information generated by PDMs will be used by regulators to ensure compliance as well as by companies and their employees in certain jobs and locations, said Melinda Pon, MSHA’s acting deputy administrator for coal mine safety and heath.

Debate Continues

As debate continues on PDMs, controversy also swirls around respirators. There are three types. One is a paper mask that goes over a miner’s nose and mouth. Another, called an elastomeric half-mask respirator, fits over the nose and mouth and includes a cartridge with changeable filters. The third is a powered air purifying respirator, which blows filtered air under a clear shield that goes over the entire face.

Roland Berry Ann, deputy director of NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, said the powered-air respirator allows less than half as many coal dust particles in the breathing space as the other two models. But O’Dell, of the UMW, said there are pros and cons for all types.

One common complaint is that they are cumbersome and difficult to use when miners sweat. Currently, many mines offer the elastomeric half-mask respirators – although miners often don’t use them.

Quincy Cook of Bevinsville in Floyd County, a recently retired coal miner with black-lung disease, said he often took off his elastomeric respirator when he got sweaty.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a miner wearing one,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which represents mostly large coal companies. “They’re cumbersome. They’re not comfortable.”

Expensive Item

And then there is the question of the safety measures’ cost. PDMs are expected to cost about $7,500 each. NIOSH’s view traditionally has been that employers are responsible for workplace safety. But many industry officials and the UMW contend that government should shoulder at least part of the cost.

“If MSHA is going to be over- seeing the program, I think the government should pay for them,” O’Dell said.

Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association’s vice president for safety and health, said industry also would like to see the government foot the bill, because of the potential financial impact on operators of small mines.

MSHA’s Pon acknowledged the push from labor and industry for government to be responsible for the cost. Asked why the industry shouldn’t pay, she replied: “Operators and the union both have said MSHA should take over all sampling for respirable coal dust, and if we take over the program, we should be purchasing the dust monitors.”

Industry would likely have to bear the cost of more efficient respirators, if they are to be offered to miners. Current prices can range from as little as $10 for paper masks to $600 or more for the helmet-type respirators.

O’Dell said the powered-air units seem to offer the most protection, and should be more available. But Caylor said operators in Kentucky generally don’t offer the devices, because there are no government incentives to do so, such as allowing miners into dustier areas.

O’Dell bristled at that notion, saying the incentive should be “providing a healthy workplace for your miner.”

“If you can’t imagine any more incentive than that, you shouldn’t be in the business of mining coal.”

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