Seyfarth Synopsis: We recently blogged that Silica is the New Asbestos: New OSHA Regional Emphasis Program Will Target Respirable Silica Hazards in Six States. Now the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has launched an enforcement initiative to better protect miners from health hazards resulting from repeated overexposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. Materials like sand, stone, concrete and mortar contain crystalline silica. Respirable crystalline silica – minute particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary beach sand – becomes airborne during cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone and rock.

Without proper protections and engineering controls in place, miners can be exposed to dangerous levels of crystalline silica particles, which increases their risk of developing serious silica-related diseases. These conditions include incurable lung diseases such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly referred to as “black lung;” progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung; silicosis; lung and other cancers; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and kidney disease. MSHA news release, June 8, 2022.

MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson indicated that MSHA is “committed to using every tool in MSHA’s toolbox to protect miners from developing debilitating and deadly lung diseases that are entirely preventable. We have seen too many miners carrying oxygen tanks and struggling to breathe just to take a few steps or do the simplest of tasks after having their lungs destroyed by toxic levels of respirable dust.”

As part of the program, MSHA “will conduct silica dust-related mine inspections and expand silica sampling at mines, while providing mine operators with compliance assistance and best practices to limit miners’ exposure to silica dust.”

Accordingly, employers should be prepared for more MSHA inspections related to silica.