In a day and age when corporate profits all too often take precedence over the health and safety of working people, it is refreshing when a federal agency actually does something for the good of working people. Last month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) slashed the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos to 5 percent of what it was. Prior to that, the time-weighted average for an average eight-hour shift was 2 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air (f/cc).
Thanks to the action taken by the MSHA, that level has now been set at 0.1 f/cc. This new ruling applies to all metal and non-metal mines as well as surface coal-mining operations and the surfaces of underground coal mines. “Excursion” limits have also been cut dramatically. Before the new ruling, these limits were up to 10 f/cc for one hour out of a full eight-hour shift. Starting on 29 April, excursion limits for all mines will be reduced to 1f/cc for a maximum of 30 minutes. The new limits were proposed nearly three years ago. They will bring MSHA PELs in line with those established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
OSHA rules from 1994 acknowledge that even at the new 0.1 f/cc level, there is still a health risk. However, this concentration reflects” the practical lower limit of feasibility for measuring asbestos levels reliably.” Currently, the MSHA measures air samples using the transmission electron microscopy method, in which electrons are passed through the air sample, causing the microscopic asbestos fibers to become visible. Health hazards of asbestos have been known to medical science for over one hundred years, but corporate conspiracies kept that knowledge from the general public for decades. When these hazards finally did receive public attention in the late 1960s, the MSHA initially established the PEL at 30 f/cc. This was dropped by OSHA to 12 f/cc within two years; under this agency, the PEL was cut dramatically over the subsequent twenty years.