Mining Project: Investigating Mining Practices and Respirable Crystalline Silica Exposures in Underground Coal Mines

Principal Investigator
Start Date 10/1/2020

To examine past and current coal mining practices and to identify potential trends, gaps in effective respirable crystalline silica exposure sampling and monitoring, and/or associations with geographic regions of high lung disease rates.

Topic Areas

Research Summary

Coal miners continue to suffer negative health outcomes due to overexposure to respirable coal mine dust. Despite historically high rates of compliance with respirable dust standards, coal mine workers are experiencing increased rates of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). Research hypothesizes that these illnesses are due to excessive respirable crystalline silica (RCS) exposure from changes in coal mining practices, especially related to increased rock extraction.

These concerns are reflected in a 2018 publication from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), “Monitoring and Sampling Approaches to Assess Underground Coal Mine Dust Exposures.” The committee recommended that NIOSH conduct a systematic evaluation of trends in coal mining practices “to determine the extent to which those changes [in mining practices] have caused increased extraction of rock and the extent to which past rock extraction has been co-located with disease hot spots.” This research will attempt to fill this and other knowledge gaps through evaluations of historic and current Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and NIOSH records and in-mine surveys of mining practices and associated exposures.

To address these issues, this project has three research aims, which will be undertaken as follows:

  1. To review historical and current mining conditions and RCS exposure records. This review will systematically access, aggregate, and analyze governmental records using existing and potentially new data-sharing/data-use agreements. Sources of data include MSHA compliance data (dust citations), MSHA health inspection reports, and MSHA-approved mine ventilation plans. These data will be synthesized into a database to support queries of several potential factors and variables—geological conditions, operating conditions, geographical information, regulatory compliance history, and rates of interstitial lung disease.
  2. To investigate potential health links between rock extraction and miner lung disease. Using historic and current coal miner lung disease data from the NIOSH CWHSP, researchers will determine the extent to which the factors identified in the first research aim are linked with rates of CWP across the U.S. This task will examine the potential role that documented mining practices may have on CWP in mine workers. Using NIOSH-generated surveillance data, it may be possible to associate rates of disease in certain demographic and geographic categories to historic and regional work practices.
  3. To benchmark current mining conditions and characterize dust exposures in coal mines. Researchers will perform in-mine surveys to establish a baseline of RCS exposures and collect benchmark information about mining conditions, ventilation, and dust control practices. The research results will be used to plan field surveys in a representative portion of the 256 active underground coal mines in the U.S. (with 32 being longwall mines). Based on the key factors identified, mines exhibiting those same or similar characteristics will be selected for underground sampling and observation.

This project’s impact will be assessed by the degree to which the findings and recommendations are integrated into future intramural and extramural research activities to reduce associated RCS exposures and the incidence of miner lung disease. This project will also provide important insights to researchers, MSHA, and mine operators on trends in mining conditions and approaches to reduce associated RCS exposures. Cleaner mine atmospheres will minimize the personal, societal, and economic burdens of miner lung disease.

Page last reviewed: December 23, 2022
Page last updated: September 18, 2020