It has been more than three decades since federal regulators made any significant changes in the rules that regulate coal mines. But a new increase in cases of black lung disease has forced the feds to take a closer look at these policies, sparking the first major changes in coal dust regulations since 1969.

The U.S Department of Labor recently announced new rules that will tighten the standards protecting U.S. miners from black lung disease. These new standards update the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which was the first piece of legislation to make health and safety policies a necessity in coal mines nationwide. After the passing of this act, the incidence of black lung disease declined sharply throughout the U.S. But federal regulators have noticed a recent increase in the disease, with most new cases originating in small, private mines in Appalachia.

If you're not familiar with it, black lung disease — or pneumoconiosis — is a chronic condition that causes shortness of breath and painfully intense coughing fits.

Why the increase in cases? Health experts point to more efficient machinery that can generate more dust, longer shifts for miners, and an increase in coal dust that is churned up when thinner coal seams are mined.

The new regulations will lower the level of coal dust that mine operators are exposed to on a daily basis. It is this prolonged exposure to coal dust that leads to black lung disease. Miners who are regularly exposed to high concentrations of dust will be required to wear PDM, or Personal Dust Monitor, devices that measure and track dust exposure. Mine operators will also be required to sample the air in mines more frequently and take immediate action if coal dust levels rise too high.

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