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New federal rules will limit miners' exposure to deadly disease-causing dust

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After years of waiting, federal mine safety regulators proposed new rules to limit coal miners' exposure to silica dust. It can cause black lung disease. Here's Justin Hicks of WFPL in Louisville, Ky.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: For years, Vonda Robinson watched her husband struggle for breath. He worked in coal mines and was diagnosed with black lung disease. She remembers the first time seeing the silica in her husband's lungs on an x-ray.

VONDA ROBINSON: One of the pulmonologists showed me - he said, you see that? And he said, it looks like slivers of glass, don't it? I said, yes, it does. And I mean, all that is - it's just going in there and cutting.

HICKS: Robinson learned that the silica comes from drilling into the rock that surrounds coal. She also learned that mineworkers are legally allowed to be exposed to silica dust levels twice that of any other worker in the nation. She wanted to change that and eventually became vice president of the National Black Lung Association. After years of fighting, she now has something to celebrate.

ROBINSON: Yes. And I'm so happy (laughter). I'm so happy.

HICKS: She's happy because, on Friday, after decades of reports, promises and false starts, the Mine Safety and Health Administration released a proposal to put silica exposure levels for miners - coal or not - in line with all other workers in the U.S. Here's MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson.

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: All miners deserve this level of protection, and they deserve to have their health prioritized. The law is very clear about that. And I think that just makes a lot of sense on a personal, human level.

HICKS: The rules would require routine medical testing of workers at all mines, not just coal. Williamson says the government wants to know more about their exposure to silica dust, too.

WILLIAMSON: We know some of these things in coal because of the existence of those surveillance programs. And those things don't exist in metal/nonmetal mines.

HICKS: If the proposed rules go into effect, companies would need to find ways to limit exposure with measures like giving miners quality respirators or limiting their time exposed to silica, some of which many companies are already doing. Once posted in the Federal Register, there will be a 45-day comment period on the rules.

For NPR News, I'm Justin Hicks in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justin Hicks