Biden administration finalizes long-delayed rule on silica dust exposure

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The Labor Department on Tuesday issued long-awaited rules governing acceptable levels of exposure to silica dust, a compound linked to terminal breathing issues in miners.

Under the final rule, the exposure limit will be lowered to 50 micrograms per cubic foot of air over the course of an eight-hour shift. It also requires metal and nonmetal mine operators to create medical surveillance programs similar to those in place for coal miners.

Silica dust is linked to a number of serious respiratory illnesses, particularly affecting miners, including silicosis, lung cancer, black lung disease, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Many of these conditions, particularly silicosis, are not detectable until years of exposure have already occurred.

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The department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) projects that the final rule will avert up to 1,067 deaths and 3,746 silica-related illnesses.

“It is unconscionable that our nation’s miners have worked without adequate protection from silica dust despite it being a known health hazard for decades,” Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su said in a statement. “Today, the Department of Labor has taken an important action to finally reduce miners’ exposure to toxic silica dust and protect them from suffering from preventable diseases.”

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The rule finalizes an earlier proposal the department introduced in June of last year, about eight months after five Democrats whose states include parts of Appalachia inquired about the delay. In a letter in November 2022, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) wrote to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shalanda Young for further information about the updated rule.

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The final rule has been expected after the White House announced in late March that OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs had finished its review of the proposed final rule.

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