The Real Story about Miners, Black Lung and the Life and Death Struggle for Benefits

Recent studies show that the occurrence of Pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung disease, among coal miners across the Nation has skyrocketed beyond anything ever seen before in the industry. Younger, less experienced miners are contracting the disease at an earlier age, subjecting them to a shortened and debilitating existence until they ultimately succumb to the ravages of the illness.

As Miners are Contracting Black Lung at Historic Rates Mine Operators and the Government Act Surprised

Data from Black Lung Clinics across Appalachia, reported by National Public Radio (NPR) and studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have all come to the same conclusion. The occurrence of Pneumoconiosis and Complicated Massive Pulmonary Fibrosis is being diagnosed in unprecedented numbers across the region. Perhaps even more alarming, is that many of the individuals contracting the disease are younger miners with less than 20 years of mining experience. The information obtained from eleven Black Lung Clinics in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio discovered 962 cases of the disease from 2010 to 2015. This is nearly ten times the number of cases reported by NIOSH during those five years. NPR also stressed that the frequency rate could be even higher because some clinics had incomplete records and other clinics refused to provide information. “The government can claim they are doing all they can to reduce miners’ exposure to coal mine dust and operators can argue the industry isn’t at fault, but there is clearly a problem here,” stated President Roberts. “There is only one way miners get Black Lung disease. They are breathing air that contains excessive amounts of respirable coal dust. Having stated the obvious, it becomes clear that the law is not being properly enforced or mine operators are not following mandatory health and safety standards or both. There is no other explanation. When enforcement does not exist and operators are permitted to police themselves, miners die. This is not hype and it is not overreaction, I am simply stating the facts. Now, we need to stop talking about how we got here or why we are here and find the solution. Miners are dying.”

Ignoring History does have Consequences

The history of Black Lung disease, like many industrial illnesses workers have faced throughout their careers, is rooted in the mischaracterization, denials and lies of the powerful corporate barons who own and operate the mines, mills and factories. For victims of Pneumoconiosis, the story started with the denials that
the disease even existed. For over one hundred years, as miners died from their exposure to coal mine dust, the operator refused to acknowledge the problem. When it became apparent to the public that miners were suffering from abnormally high numbers of chronic lung conditions, mine operators attempted to extoll the virtues of the symptoms, claiming that the choking and coughing would actually clear the miners’ lungs and keep them healthy. Company doctors, hired and paid for by the operators, even claimed it was healthy for miners to breath coal dust. Finally, when there was no recourse but to accept the medical reality that miners were dying because of the dusty environment they were forced to work in, mine operators laid the blame at the feet of the miners. In the eyes of the coal barons, the miners who are slowly suffocating from this insidious disease are lying about their condition to collect benefits they do not deserve. In a shameful twist, the coal operators have put all their energy into playing the victim. They have spent almost 200 years blaming everyone else for the conditions that miners suffer. The resurgence of the disease in recent years has not changed the operators or their trade associations’ misinformation campaign.

From Mine Operators to the NMA, it’s the Miners Fault or Miners are Liars

The most recent tact by mine operators and the National Mining Association (NMA) ring ominously familiar to the past. The latest iteration of the miners’ lung problems is a rare and debilitating disease known as Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). Despite the fact that the cause of IPF is unknown and that it effects people over the age of 55 almost exclusively, it is the latest attempt by the industry to distance itself from exposing miners to excessive coal dust. The fact that almost every one of the estimated 42,000 individuals who will be diagnosed with IPF this year will be over the age of 65 and have no connection to coal mining does not stop the industry propaganda machine. The industry also relies on the decades-old idea that smoking is the culprit. But according to Dr. David Blackley, head of Respiratory Disease Studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, [Black Lung] is “…an incurable disease caused by inhalation of coal dust…it is not caused by smoking” and “…is easy to distinguish with x-rays.” However, industry apologists still use the old familiar tactics despite medical evidence to the contrary. Bruce Watzman, head of Regulatory Affairs for the NMA, reiterated the tired old lie about the disease. He noted that based on, “… discussions with those who administer this program for [coal] companies… more often than not, we are called to provide compensation for previous or current smokers.” “Miners have been mining coal to power this Country for more than 200 years, which is just as long as mine operators have been lying about Black Lung disease,” said Secretary-Treasurer Allen. “No matter what the circumstance; inadequate ventilation, excessive dust, a mine explosion or in this case miners suffering from Black Lung disease, mine operators never accept any responsibility for their actions. The excuses never seem to end. More than 100,000 miners have been killed in this industry and over 100,000 more have suffocated to death from Pneumoconiosis, but I have never met a coal operator who has offered anything but excuses and used tainted evidence by company paid physicians to place blame elsewhere. The stories never change; a miner dies in an accident or succumbs to black lung, the coal operator blames the miner or claims it was an act of God and forgets the miner ever lived, let alone worked for the company. It’s a sad situation that just keeps playing over and over.”

You can find the remainder of this story in your copy of the July/August UMW Journal. 

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