Miners are at an exceptional risk of exposure to airborne dust particles due to the work environment inside mines and quarries. Unfortunately, that means that miners are also at a high risk of developing lung diseases, including miner silicosis. Miners who have worked in the industry for more than five years are also at an increased risk of lung cancer.
What is Miner Silicosis?
Silicosis is an incurable lung disease that develops after prolonged exposure to crystalline silica particles, or silica dust. Silica can be found in most rocks, sand, and dirt. When miners dig or cut into these surfaces, silica dust particles become airborne.
When these particles are inhaled, they settle in the lungs causing inflammation and eventually respiratory problems. Miners who develop silicosis often experience symptoms such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chronic or persistent cough
- Cough that is productive (phlegm)
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
These symptoms can be treated with proper medical care, but the disease itself is incurable. The goal of treatment is to help improve health and quality of life. Unfortunately, silicosis is a progressive disease.
Are All Miners At Risk of Developing Silicosis?
Mining is a difficult job, and is one that may inherently expose workers to silica dust. Therefore, most all miners are at risk of developing silicosis if proper safety and protective measures fail. Silicosis is considered to be 100 percent preventable. By using personal protective equipment (PPE) and following safety guidelines, miners can avoid exposure.
In the past several years, miners have been studied for risk assessment and prevalence of silicosis. In 2001, researchers studied tin miners in China, and determined that 1,015 (33.7 percent) of the 3,010 miners studied had a positive diagnosis of silicosis. A study conducted in 2010 found that 59 percent of uranium miners studied had lymph node silicosis, and 43 percent had parenchymal (tissue-related) silicosis.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes that the prevalence of silicosis is not as well documented as other occupational diseases. However, historical data shows that as many as 23 percent of silicosis-related deaths since the 1990’s are among miners.
This data is alarming because NIOSH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have guidelines for preventing silica dust exposure.
OSHA and NIOSH Silica Dust Exposure Limits
The way to prevent silicosis is by limiting exposure to silica dust. Therefore, OSHA and NIOSH have developed exposure limits. These limits require employers to monitor work environments and ensure that they are within acceptable standards. Employers must also provide workers with appropriate safety gear and training.
Employers measure silica dust by testing the air for millions of particles per cubic foot (MPPCF). A specific formula is then used to determine the MPPCF of silica dust.
- OSHA requires that work environments adhere to a limit of 250 MPPCF, or 10mg.
- NIOSH requires that work environments be limited to 0.5 mg.
OSHA and NIOSH are increasingly strict on employers who fail to follow these guidelines.
Preventing Miner Silicosis
If you work in the mining industry, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of developing a lung disease like silicosis. Consider these tips:
- Attend training so you are aware of the risks
- If you work in a dusty environment, do the following:
- Use water to keep dust levels to a minimum
- Always wear PPE, including a respirator
- Use cleaning or ventilation machines to remove dust
- Avoid eating or drinking in dusty areas
- Change clothes before you enter your vehicle or home
- Change clothes before interacting with others
Silicosis is preventable, but the CDC notes that as many as 2.3 million workers in the United States are currently at risk of developing the disease. These workers are miners, construction workers, maritime workers, and sandblasters.