Black Lung: The Coal, Hard Truth
Many thought black lung was eradicated by legislation passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, according to a recent report from National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, the number of patients diagnosed with coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, has doubled in the past decade. Over the past three decades, the average coal miner’s work week has grown by 11 hours or more per week, equaling about 600 additional exposure hours per year. At the same time, mining machines have become increasingly more efficient, meaning workers are exposed to a higher amount coal dust for longer periods of time.
Black lung can cause shortness of breath, airway obstruction, severe cough, chronic lung disease and potential heart failure. There is no cure for black lung, but avoiding long-term exposure to coal dust can help prevent the disease. Employers are encouraged to have a Respiratory Protection Program for the long-term health benefit of their employees.
Consider the following when designing a Respiratory Protection Program:
Care, Maintenance and Tag-out: Respirators and equipment should be properly maintained and inspected on a regular basis, ideally before each use. If defects are found, the damaged equipment should be removed and tagged out.
Enforcement: This is one of the largest deficiencies in a respiratory program. Disciplinary actions should be taken when an employee is not wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). PPE can only protect an employee if they are wearing it.
Environment: It is important that a company is familiar with the materials with which it will be working and the hazards employees may encounter. This includes hazardous materials’ effects on the body, material exposure limits, potential reactions and inhalation risks.
Fit: Fit-testing is important for each individual required to wear a respirator. Facial hair, glasses, ear-rings, etc. can compromise a respirator’s seal. Each individual should ensure a complete seal and comfortable fit before each use.
IDLH Atmospheres: A company needs to determine if it is willing to work in Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) atmospheres. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health defines IDLH as atmospheres that are “likely to cause death or immediate or delayed permanent adverse health effects or prevent escape from such an environment.” If a company decides to do work in IDLH environments, it needs to ensure that adequate measures are taken to protect employees. This can include proper training, PPE, monitoring and rescue procedures.
Respirator Choice: It is crucial that the correct respirator is chosen for the job being performed. Different materials require different cartridges for filtering or respirator complexity/strength. One job may require something as simple as a medical mask, while another may require a full face mask or Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus.
Since mine dust monitoring began, black lung has contributed to the deaths of more than 70,000 miners. For more information on dust control, visit OSHA’s Dust Control Handbook.