Asbestos exposure in mining was a greater risk in the past but still a possible danger for current workers. Asbestos is a natural mineral extracted from the earth that often contaminates other mined materials The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sets safety regulations to protect workers, although, for many working in the industry, they came too late.
How Are Miners Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos exposure in miners is not as big of a problem as it was in the past. Today, reduced activity and better safety regulations, training, and equipment protect workers, but the risk is not zero.
Historically and today, there are a few ways miners might be exposed to asbestos:
- Direct exposure in asbestos mines. The most obvious risk of exposure to asbestos in mining is in asbestos mines. This was a hazard for workers in the past, but there are no longer any operational asbestos mines in the U.S.
- Asbestos contamination in mines. Other types of mines that still operate today can expose workers to naturally-occurring asbestos. Some mineral deposits have veins or trace amounts of asbestos that miners might disturb while working.
- Asbestos products on the job. Like other industrial jobs, miners might use materials or equipment that contain asbestos. For instance, heavy machinery might have asbestos in brakes and clutches. Older buildings on the sites might have been constructed with asbestos insulation and other products.
The most obvious risk of exposure to asbestos in mining is in asbestos mines. This was a hazard for workers in the past, but there are no longer any operational asbestos mines in the U.S.
Asbestos has been mined from the earth for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. People in ancient times recognized the unique properties of asbestos, including its strength and resistance to heat, fire, and chemical corrosion.
People have long valued asbestos as a material for fireproofing, insulation, and other types of construction and shipbuilding materials. To meet the demand for asbestos, asbestos mining was once a big business.
When Did Asbestos Mining Stop in the U.S.?
Mining for asbestos halted in the U.S. in 2002. Until the 1970s, asbestos was commonly used in the U.S. Increasing concerns about its health effects led to limitations and regulations, eventually leading to the phasing out of asbestos mining.
Long before experts realized the dangers of asbestos, the U.S. and Canada were two large mineral producers. At the industry’s peak, several asbestos mines operated in these and other states:
- North Carolina
The U.S. Geological Survey records over 900 sites in the U.S. where active mines were located.
Asbestos Mining Outside the U.S.
The United States does not have an outright ban on asbestos. Any new asbestos must be imported from other countries with active asbestos mines. Countries that currently mine and produce the most asbestos in the world are Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan.
Miners Exposed in the Past at Risk for Mesothelioma Today
Asbestos mining may have ceased, but the damage has already been done to workers in those mines—decades after exposure and inhaling asbestos fibers, many miners developed illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Those who continued working in asbestos mines through their closings in 2002 are still at risk of receiving a diagnosis. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, so past workers could still face illness in the future.
The MSHA and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) have both set standards for acceptable exposure levels. These standards have been in place since the 1970s, but workers continued to be exposed and risk becoming sick today.
Are Current Miners Still at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
Yes, miners can still be exposed to asbestos today. The risk is much lower than in the past, but they might encounter asbestos in equipment, old materials, and natural deposits of asbestos.
What Are Asbestos Exposure Limits in Mining?
The U.S. Department of the Interior created the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (now MSHA) to protect mine workers. One concern was asbestos exposure. The agency set an initial exposure limit in 1974. The limit set was only five asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air.
Two years later, the agency tightened that limitation to two fibers per cubic centimeter over an eight-hour period. In 2008, the agency lowered the acceptable asbestos exposure limit to 0.1 fibers. This limit matches the limit set by OSHA and is applied to all underground and surface mines for metals, nonmetals, and coal.
How Can Miners Limit Asbestos Exposure at Work?
Understanding the OSHA and MSHA safety regulations and rights for workers and miners is the first step to staying safer on the job. When you know your rights, you can ensure they are not violated by employers.
Your employer should clearly communicate any areas with asbestos. They should provide appropriate safety training and gear. They must also put controls in place to limit exposure and regularly monitor the air for asbestos levels.
Additionally, the MSHA has some important safety suggestions for miners who work around asbestos:
- Wet mining dust to keep asbestos fibers down.
- Use a vacuum with an approved filter or wet sweep dust.
- Avoid any cleaning activities that spread dust, like dry sweeping or compressed air.
- Use approved respirators and keep them on until the risk has been managed.
- Use showers and changing areas designed for containing asbestos.
- Never wear work clothing home.
Asbestos Exposure at Taconite Mines
All mining has the potential to expose workers to asbestos. Asbestos may be found in small quantities in many areas of the earth; therefore, it may be disturbed and contaminate air, even in mines designed to excavate other minerals.
Taconite mining in Minnesota is an example of a non-asbestos mine that exposed workers to this dangerous mineral. Minnesota has numerous mines for taconite, a substance used to extract iron. A 2003 study found mesothelioma was more common in taconite mining regions than in other parts of the state.
Researchers also studied whether the miners affected developed mesothelioma from inhaling taconite dust or if they had been exposed to asbestos. It was discovered most of the sick miners were exposed to asbestos through the commercial processing of taconite.
Vermiculite Mining and Libby, Montana
Asbestos exposure is a danger in all types of mining; however, vermiculite mining is especially risky. Vermiculite is a group of minerals that often contain contaminating minerals, including asbestos. Vermiculite is used in insulation, fireproofing materials, growing materials for plants, and various construction materials.
For decades, a large vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, was the major source of vermiculite in the United States. The mining site also had a deposit of asbestos. Libby vermiculite contained contaminating asbestos fibers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually declared the area a Superfund site; however, this decision was not made until thousands of people were affected.
Miners and residents of nearby towns were infected by asbestos particles in the air, soil, and water. The situation was so problematic that in 2009, the EPA declared it the agency’s first designated public health emergency.
Asbestos in Coal Mining
Current workers in coal mines are at risk of exposure to asbestos. Approximately 15% of coal mines in the U.S. have some naturally-occurring asbestos.
Working underground with poor ventilation and limited air space makes it especially risky to be around asbestos fibers. Coal mining activities can stir up asbestos dust and expose miners as they work.
Diseases resulting from inhaling coal dust are much more likely to affect miners, but asbestos-related diseases are still a risk.
Mining and Asbestos Lawsuits
Miners and residents near mines have filed lawsuits against mining companies over exposure and illness. Many of these victims sued successfully and won significant jury awards or settlements to compensate for their illnesses.
The most extensive example of legal actions over asbestos in mining comes from Libby. In 2017, Libby asbestos exposure victims reached a $25 million settlement with Montana. In early 2023, W.R. Grace offered $18.5 million to settle claims.
There have been many other smaller and individual lawsuits brought against mining companies and asbestos companies that supplied mines. A family of a man who died from mesothelioma in 2012 after working in talc mines successfully sued for $10.55 million. He worked in Gouvernour, New York mines in the 1970s.
How Can Miners Seek Compensation for Asbestos Exposure?
If you were a miner and later developed an asbestos-related illness, you have a right to seek justice and compensation for your suffering. Consult an expert asbestos lawyer to help you seek compensation through a mesothelioma lawsuit.
If the companies that exposed you to asbestos are now bankrupt, you might be eligible to file a claim with an asbestos trust fund. A lawyer can help you find the right trusts and make a successful claim. Act quickly because statutes of limitations vary by state and put a time limit on your ability to recover damages.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.