Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced a new initiative to strengthen enforcement of its current respirable crystalline silica standards.  Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in sand, stone, concrete, and other materials.  When disturbed by cutting, grinding, or crushing, it becomes airborne and respirable, capable of posing increased risk of diseases like silicosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or “black lung,” and certain cancers.

The enforcement initiative goes into effect immediately and serves as interim measure as MSHA continues work to develop a new rule addressing silica dust exposure limits. But rulemaking progress has been slow and, with the proposed rule not expected until later this summer, a final silica rule is unlikely to be issued before 2023.  This enforcement initiative serves as a stop gap that MSHA “can take now while [it] continue[s] the rulemaking process toward the development” of the new standard, Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson explained.

Details about how exactly the initiative will unfold or how consistently or stringently it will be applied remain to be seen.  Based on information in MSHA’s press release, enforcement may be focused on increased oversight at mines with a history of prior silica exceedances and other non-compliance with existing rules. But the Agency left open the possibility of increased enforcement activity at silica-intensive operations at compliant sites, too. The measures include:

  • Spot inspections at coal and metal nonmetal mines with a history of repeated silica overexposures;
  • Increased oversight and enforcement of known silica hazards at mines with previous citations for exposing miners to silica dust levels over the existing 100μg permissible exposure limit (PEL).
    • When a metal/nonmetal operator has not timely abated a silica overexposure hazard, MSHA will issue a §104(b) withdrawal order until the hazard is abated. For coal mines, MSHA will urge “changes to dust control and ventilation plans to address known health hazards.”
  • Expanded silica sampling at metal and nonmetal mines to ensure inspectors’ samples represent mines, commodities, and jobs known to have the highest risk for overexposure.
  • An emphasis on sampling during mining processes presenting the highest risk of silica exposure: for coal mines, shaft and slope sinking, extended cuts and developing crosscuts; for metal and nonmetal, overburden removal.
  • MSHA will “remind[] miners about their rights to report hazardous health conditions, including any attempt to tamper with the sampling process.”  It’s unclear, however, how exactly that outreach will occur.

Key Takeaways

Rollout of this new initiative comes on the heels of newly proposed requirements under MSHA’s mobile power haulage proposed rule and just months after appointment of a new Assistant Secretary.  With the change in administration and new MSHA leadership aboard, this may be just the latest shift in enforcement and regulatory approach, with more to come.

In any event, those operating in silica-intensive environments—and certainly those with silica-related enforcement histories—should dedicate particular attention to silica dust compliance at their sites. If compliance programs need updating, or training is overdue, now is the time.