WASHINGTON (CN) - With black lung disease on the rise, the Department of Labor has cut the amount of dust allowed in coal mine air, by 25 percent, according to a new regulation. Also, the regulators claim deviators will be cited when the agency tests the air.
Coal mining often leads to debilitating lung diseases such as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, emphysema and other ailments that are collectively known as black lung disease.
The disease had spiked in the previous decade, a 2012 National Public Radio and Center for Public Integrity investigation reported on NPR's website. It also found and documented weak enforcement by federal regulators and cheating by mining companies.
The data also shows that the mining industry and federal regulators have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the coal mine dust that causes black lung.
Since 1968, more than 76,000 miners have died from black lung disease, and the federal government has paid more than $45 billion to affected miners and their families, according to the agency's press release.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Department of Labor, has lowered the limits on the amount of coal dust to which miners can be exposed, among other things.
In August 2016, the agency will lower the concentration limits for coal dust from two milligrams of dust per cubic meter to 1.5 milligrams in underground and surface mines, the regulation said.
"Lowering the concentration of respirable coal mine dust in the air that miners breathe is the most effective means of preventing diseases caused by excessive exposure to such dust," according to the action.
The regulation also requires the use of a "continuous personal dust monitor," a sampling device used to measure coal dust at intervals to determine dust levels. "This will enable mine operators to take earlier action to identify areas with dust generation sources, reduce the dust levels in those areas, and prevent miners from being overexposed," the agency wrote.
The regulation requires more frequent testing of areas known to have high levels of coal dust, and changes the method of how coal dust samples are averaged. Previously, coal mines stopped measuring dust samples after 8 hours, but under the new standards, samples are required for the full shift a miner works.
The agency also expanded the requirements for periodic medical checks for coal miners, adding occupational history, symptom assessment and spirometry testing to the chest x-ray exams miners receive.
Surface coal miners will also be entitled to the chest x-rays that underground miners receive because they too face risks of lung diseases, the agency wrote.
"Today we advance a very basic principle: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood," U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez was quoted as saying in the agency's press release.
The final rule is effective Aug. 1.