Black Lung Disease Makes a Terrifying Comeback

Coal miners and other workers exposed to coal dust have experienced the debilitating condition at rates not seen in 40 years.

Black lung disease has increased by 3 percent in just the last decade, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The debilitation condition that affects miners and coal workers is at its highest rate since the 1970s.

Black lung disease is caused by the inhalation of coal dust. Those who suffer from black lung disease suffocate to death over a period of years. Tens of thousands of miners and other workers exposed to coal dust have died from black lung disease since the 1970s. That does not even include related conditions such as respiratory illness and lung cancer.

Black lung, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is entirely preventable. Once established, however, it is incurable and lethal.

Resurgence underscores not enough is being done to protect workers

One recent study which looked at black lung's comeback, "Resurgence of a Debilitating and Entirely Preventable Respiratory Disease among Working Coal Miners," published in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, noted that inhaling coal dust is the sole cause of black lung in working coal miners. Therefore the increase can only be related to miners and coal workers becoming overexposed to coal dust despite increased knowledge of black lung's effects and the safety standards needed to combat it.

One potential cause of the increase is more powerful machinery that grinds coal into ever-finer particles, according to some safety experts. Longer shifts in mines make a standard 8-hour day rare in the industry and increase the exposure miners have to dangerous coal dust. Industry monitoring sources also report that safety standards regarding black lung disease are currently only loosely enforced, although new regulations attempting to protect coal miners went into effect this past August. Even the new regulations, however, only limit the dust standards to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter. Previous regulations capped the amount of dust at 2 milligrams per cubic meter. NIOSH, numerous scientific studies, and safety advocates all recommended the dust standards be limited to 1 milligram per cubic meter. Those opposing better safety standards claimit would cost industry too much money.

Legal options exist

Working with coal and coal byproducts is a dangerous enough job without companies cutting corners or becoming lax about safety. Recognizing the danger that coal miners face every day, decades ago Congress enacted the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which included specific provisions about compensation for workers suffering from black lung disease. In September of 2013, the Department of Labor also announced the implementation of the Byrd Amendments to the Black Lung Act. Commonly referenced to their sponsor, the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, these amendments reinstated two provisions regarding the entitlement to benefits for coal miner and their survivors which had been eliminated in 1981. The first such amendment mandates a presumption of total disability or death caused by pneumoconiosis for coal miners who worked for at least 15 years in underground (or comparable surface) mining and who suffer or suffered from a totally disabling respiratory impairment. The second such amendment provides automatic entitlement for eligible survivors of miners who were themselves entitled to receive benefits as a result of a lifetime claim. As a result of these amendments, many miners disabled by black lung disease and their survivors will now receive benefits which had been in the past denied to them or came about only after prolonged efforts to establish entitlement to them.

Since the condition is extraordinarily painful and can be completely disabling, the sooner those entitled to benefits start to receive them, the better. Dependents of victims of black lung, including spouses and children, can also receive compensation for the harm it has caused their family.

That is why workers and families of workers who have suffered from black lung disease or related severe conditions such as lung cancer should speak to the experienced personal injury attorneys at Brayton * Purcell LLP. Getting the maximum amount of compensation cannot ease the pain of black lung disease or give children back their parent, but it can help to pay for medical expenses and lost wages and allow the miner and his family to live with dignity in the face of often tragic conditions.

Keywords: black lung disease, coal miners