Saving Miners’ Lives by Fighting Black Lung

Gary Hairston, a coal miner who was diagnosed with Black Lung disease, shares his story with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Gary Hairston, a coal miner who was diagnosed with Black Lung disease, shares his story with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez in Morgantown, West Virginia.

By U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Here’s a staggering statistic: since 1968, more than 76,000 coal miners have died at least in part because of black lung, the disease they contract from breathing in coal dust. Think about that: for more than 45 years, black lung has contributed on average to the death of about five miners each and every day.

But today, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration took a major step to fight this devastating and debilitating, but preventable, disease. We have released a final rule that will save miners’ lives by limiting their exposure to respirable coal dust in all underground and surface coal mines.

Today, I joined Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Dr. John Howard of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for this historic announcement in Morgantown, W.Va.  Also participating were three people whose lives have been forever changed by black lung.

Carol Miller described how black lung took from her late husband all the things he loved – hunting, the mountains, even just walking down to the mailbox. Gary Hairston expressed sorrow that he can’t teach his grandson how to play basketball. It hurts, he explained, when “you can’t do what you used to do [and] you can’t be what you used to be.” Dewey Keiper got so choked up that he was barely able to speak.

It’s time to say: enough. No one should have to suffer like this simply for doing their job. And no one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood.

In developing this rule, we have proceeded with urgency but not with haste. We have worked hard to engage every segment of the coal community – miners, operators, health professionals, community and labor leaders and more. We held seven public hearings. The final rule reflects careful consideration of – and responsiveness to — roughly 2,000 pages of comments received. The rule also comes with a two-year implementation period during which we will provide support and guidance to coal operators.

At the end of the day, I believe we can have both healthy miners and a thriving coal industry. No matter what sector of the economy we’re talking about, I categorically reject the false choice between job growth and job safety. We can and must have both.

Every day, thousands of tough, hard-working Americans head to the nation’s mines — many of them descending below the earth’s surface – to do one of the most difficult jobs imaginable.  It’s a job most Americans know little about but depend on enormously.

For all they do to heat our homes, power our plants and strengthen our economy, the nation’s miners haven’t asked for much. They simply want to support their families and capture a piece of the American Dream. And of course they want to spend their golden years bouncing grandchildren on their knee, not gasping for breath and tethered to an oxygen tank. They know this isn’t risk-free work, but all they want are basic workplace protections that give them the chance to enjoy decent health and quality of life for years to come.

Now, in a moment that’s been a long time coming, we are giving more miners exactly that chance.

Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec, and join the conversation using #EndBlackLung.