Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Monday, April 28, 2003

LEGAL DOESN’T MEAN SAFE: Black lung study casts cloud over coal-dust limits

A rather disturbing article from the Louisville Courier Journal revealing that miners –- both below and above ground -- are still getting black lung disease at alarming rates, even thought they have worked their entire careers at supposedly “safe” or at least “legal” limits of coal dust.
WASHINGTON -- New cases of black lung are developing in miners who have worked their entire careers under federal coal-dust limits that were supposed to prevent the crippling respiratory disease, according to a new study.

Tommie Hall, of Topmost, Ky., worked in mines for 26 years under the dust-control limits. Yet he said he has black lung and has filed a claim with the state.

His breathing is so bad that it takes him 10 to 15 minutes to recover after climbing the single flight of stairs in his house, said Hall, 50.
Dust controls in the mines he worked in were regularly ignored, he said. Miners knew they couldn't complain. ''If you said something, you'd go look for a job,'' Hall said. ''That's the way it is.''
Even more disturbing is that these findings may be underestimated:
The study emphasized that it was limited to working miners and that the X-rays were voluntary. Participation rates in X-rays were low, and data on work experience wasn't consistent, researchers added.

Dr. E. Lee Petsonk, one of the authors of the study, also pointed out that disease rates among retired or sick miners who were forced to leave work weren't included, nor could researchers do much about miners who didn't participate but may have signs of black lung.
As we always say when training workers about chemical exposure limits, "legal does not mean safe." I wonder if the same problems exist for OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits, which are coming up on their 40th birthday?

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