New Asbestos Limits Set for Mining Operations

Last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) set a new federal limit on asbestos exposure at mining operations nationwide, therefore aligning it with the standard for other industries.

According to an article in the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, the administration has raised protections for mine workers who may be exposed to asbestos, including steelworkers at Minnesota iron ore mines and taconite processing plants.

“The new rule lowers the permissible exposure limit for asbestos 95 percent, from two fibers per cubic centimeter to 0.1 fibers,” the article notes. “It also lowers the allowable limit for brief exposures to higher asbestos levels from10 fibers per cubic centimeter for 15 minutes to 1 fiber for 30 minutes.”

The mine safety agency, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, said the new limits “will significantly reduce the risk to miners.’’ The rules apply to U.S. iron ore mines, coal mines and other non-ferrous mines such as copper or nickel.

The article points out that Northeastern Minnesota mine workers have, over the past decade, shown a large increase in the development of mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer. State and University of Minnesota health officials are trying to determine the source of exposure that may have triggered the deadly disease but many believe that asbestos-like fibers present in the iron ore mined in the eastern areas of the Mesabi Iron Range are responsible for the surge in asbestos-related illnesses.

Of particular concern are the mines of the closed LTV Steel Mining operation near Hoyt Lakes and the ore from a Babbitt mine still processed by Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.

“This final rule will help improve health protection for miners who work in an environment where asbestos is present,” said Richard E. Stickler, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “Furthermore, it will help lower the risk of material impairment of health or functional capacity over a miner’s working lifetime.”

The agency has said that only five of the 207 mines sampled since 2000 have had an asbestos exposure that would have violated the new limits. Because the new rules weren’t yet in place, no fines could be levied for violations.

Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, confirmed in the News Tribune article that Northshore Mining was one of those five mines.

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