Lung Health – A Workers’ Issue

An important article, regarding Lung Health, was published this week on the US Department of Labor Blog.  We offer it below in it’s entirety and hope that you will read this important information. The original post can be found here

Lung Health — A Workers Issue by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez

Workers should never have to worry that the air they breathe on the job will slowly destroy their lungs. Yet in too many cases, that risk is still all too real at U.S. workplaces.

Occupational lung disease is slow, debilitating and lethal. A construction worker, stone cutter, foundry worker or coal miner inhales tiny bits of dust that penetrate the lungs and slowly causes them to scar over. It may be decades before health problems develop, from shortness of breath to dependency on oxygen tanks. After a lifetime of hard work, instead of a comfortable retirement, so many workers confront a grim reality: although occupational lung diseases are preventable, they are often incurable.

During Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November, we recognize that lung health is a workers’ issue − and that diseases like silicosis, pneumoconiosis (black lung), chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer still devastate the lives of too many workers and their families every year.

At the Labor Department, we are making progress toward reducing and preventing the occupational risks of cancer and other lung ailments. Occupationally caused lung disease is preventable − reducing the amount of dust in the air by wetting it down or vacuuming it up. Proper use of respirators can prevent workers from inhaling whatever dust is left in the air. OSHA has also proposed rules to better protect workers from the hazards of beryllium and silica.

OSHA’s silica proposal is the product of more than 75 years of work by the department, ever since Secretary Frances Perkins raised the issue of silicosis way back in the 1930s. We have gone to great lengths to gather stakeholder comments, even holding 14 days of public hearings in 2014, and we are working hard on a final rule that incorporates that input and protects workers’ lungs.

Similarly, the beryllium proposal would dramatically lower the amount of beryllium allowed in the air that workers breathe. The current allowable amount was based on research from the 1940s, before the risks of long-term exposure were understood.

We know the beryllium and silica rules will make a huge difference when they are finalized, and our work on black lung disease can serve as a model for successful rulemaking in this space. Black lung is a chronic, irreversible occupational lung disease, linked to more than 76,000 deaths since 1968 and caused by the inhalation of dangerous levels of respirable coal dust by miners. Decades of work culminated in a final regulation that limits miners’ exposure to the dust.

When I visited West Virginia with Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main to announce the rule in April of 2014, I was moved by the stories of miners who could no longer play ball with their grandkids, who struggled just to walk to the end of the driveway to get the mail, who must spend their lives tethered to an oxygen tank. But because of our rule, we are seeing meaningful progress. In fact, since it went into effect over a year ago, coal mine sampling data indicate a 99 percent compliance rate by the mining industry. The next and critical phase of the rule will implement improved monitoring and include a cutting edge, real-time monitoring device developed in partnership with industry.

Tens of thousands of people have died from lung disease contracted at work. Many more have their lives diminished by its devastating symptoms. To honor them, and to prevent others from meeting the same fate, the Department of Labor will continue doing everything possible to reduce dangerous dust in the air that American workers breathe.

Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter and Instagram as @LaborSec.