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Black Lung

Black Lung

Black lung is a legal term describing a preventable, occupational lung disease that is contracted by prolonged breathing of coal mine dust. Described by a variety of names, including miner's asthma, silicosis, coal workers' pneumoconiosis, and black lung, they are all dust diseases with the same symptoms.

Like all occupational diseases, black lung is man-made and can be prevented. In fact, the U.S. Congress ordered black lung to be eradicated from the coal industry in 1969. Today, it is estimated that 1500 former coal miners each year die an agonizing death in often isolated rural communities, away from the spotlight of publicity.

In 1952, Alabama became the first state to provide compensation for coal workers' pneumoconiosis. A few years later, Virginia recognized the disease as compensable, but pressures were exerted the following year and the amendment was repealed. Pennsylvania enacted legislation effective on December 1, 1965, and Virginia again amended its compensation law in 1968.

Late in 1968, a number of miners organized the West Virginia Black Lung Association, which successfully led a campaign to introduce a bill in the 1969 session of the West Virginia legislature making coal workers' pneumoconiosis a compensable disease. The compensation bill was quickly made a major issue by the Black Lung Association and militant miners in February when the legislation ran into opposition from the coal-operator-dominated legislature. Most of the 40,000 miners in West Virginia walked out of the mines, and a large number of them marched on the state capitol in Charleston demanding passage of the bill. Three weeks later, after the Governor signed the bill, the miners went back to work. This was one of the largest and longest strikes ever on the single issue of occupational health. This strike played a vital role in the ultimate passage of similar legislation in three more states in 1969 and one in 1971, and the enactment of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Although coal workers' pneumoconiosis was the only disease mentioned in all the state and federal statutes, Congress legalized the term "black lung" as a synonym for that disease in Title IV of the Coal Mine Act. It was the first time that Congress had mandated that an occupational disease occurring in a major industry must be eradicated. Congress also established the black lung benefits program, the first and only federal compensation statute to compensate victims of occupational diseases. In 1977, amendments established a Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to provide compensation to miners whose employers no longer existed, financed by taxes paid by all coal operators. They also made coal companies directly responsible for compensation and medical costs for black lung victims that had worked for them. The UMWA has advocated legislative and administrative reforms to make it easier for black lung victims to establish eligibility for benefits.

How to get benefits

  • Contact the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Workers' Compensation Programs district office nearest you. Click here for a list of those offices and contact information. The toll-free number to call for information about this program and the services available is (800) 638-7072
  • The National Black Lung Association (NBLA) has offices throughout the coalfields, providing essential services and advice to black lung claimants.
    Joe Massie 304-469-3235 Oak Hill, W.Va
    Sparkle Bonds 276-963-9776 Raven, Va
    Debbie Wills 304-595-1770 Cedar Grove, W.Va.
  • UMWA members and their families should contact their District office for information about the UMWA Benefit Services Fund legal assistance available to them in their area.

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