Freshman Congressman Larry D. Bucshon (R) of Evansville, Indiana is a cardiothoracic surgeon. His father was an underground coal miner and a member of the United Mine Workers Union for 37 years. Both his grandparents were coal miners. But, Republican-controlled Capitol Hill is now the Twilight Zone when I heard him say the following last week at a congressional hearing:
“I see a lot of patients with workplace related respiratory problems, some of which, to put it bluntly, are their own issue because they refuse to wear safety equipment regardless of whether there are regulations in place to do so or not.”
The congressman’s offensive remark was part of a question to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on her department’s regulatory plan to address coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. I thought I’d heard it all, but blaming coal miners for having black lung disease?? That’s shameful.
The doctor/congressman may know cardiothoracic surgery, but he needs to pick up a few history books. When the 1969 Coal Act was being debated, physicans bought and paid for by coal operators told lawmakers that coal dust was not the cause of miners’ lung disease. Some even argued that breathing in the black dust had a protective effect. In many industries, workers have been told (lied to) “don’t worry, it’s just dust,” or “it’s not dangerous, it just makes you cough,” or “it’s safe enough to put on your morning cereal” or “you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than be harmed by this stuff.” The health of millions of workers has been harmed because they never had access to complete and accurate information about the compounds to which they were exposed, nor the appropriate controls to prevent them from being exposed.
Despite what the doctor/congressman might think, the answer is not as easy as a surgical mask and latex gloves. The most effective way to protect workers from dangerous workplace hazards is to control them at the source. With coal dust, that means controlling the dust with water sprays, ventilation and dust collectors. Wearing a respirator should be the last line of defense, and for workers who already have impaired lungs, breathing through a respirator is not even an option.
Congressman Bucshon’s remark came during a hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee at which Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was the sole witness. Every Labor Department program was up for grabs during the Q&A, with several witnesses harping particularly on worker safety regulations. The congressman devoted his time to complaints about the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) proposed regulation to prevent miners from developing black lung disease. Yes, US coal miners are still developing the progressive and disabling respiratory illness (more here, here, here, here). MSHA proposed a rule last October and the public comment period remains open until May 2. His remarks parroted those offered by the Indiana Coal Council at a public hearing about the proposed rule. (Not surprising since the congressman received substantial campaign donations from mining companies: Peabody Energy ($9,850), Barrick Gold ($5,000), and CEMEX ($5,000), among others.) The congressman said:
“My understanding is that this potential regulation may cost the industry about a Billion dollars.”
A BILLION dollars? He can’t be serious. MSHA’s preliminary economic analysis projects first year costs of the rule would be $72.4 to $93.2 million, with annual costs of less than $40 million. The U.S. coal mining industry has annual revenues of $33 Billion.
Congressman Bucshon went on:
“From my perspective as a medical physician, and understanding the coal industry, I don’t see what the really big push for regulating.”
Here’s the reason. Coal provides about 50% of our nation’s electricity, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The workers who dig it out of the ground should not, should NOT be suffering from lung diseases related to this work, especially illnesses that are PREVENTABLE. If this MSHA rule were put in place, the next generation of coal miners and their families would be spared from:
- *2,822 cases of coal workers pneumoconiosis (category 1&2)
- *791 cases of progressive massive fibrosis
- *687 cases of emphysema
- *131 deaths from non-malignant respiratory disease
Congressman Bucshon got one thing sort of right when he said
“in a coal mine, most of the exposure is not to coal dust but to silica dust.”
Yes, respirable silica dust is another serious health hazard for coal miners and other workers. Both MSHA and OSHA plan to propose rules to address that hazard later this year.
Something tells me that Cong. Bucshon won’t support those proposals either.