In 1996, Kentucky instituted a completely new process for determining whether workers exposed to coal dust had contracted coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung disease — a progressive, incurable disease caused only by breathing excessive amounts of coal dust.
The 1996 statute created a convoluted and ineffective methodology for evaluating coal workers for CWP called the “consensus reading process,” requiring multiple unnecessary reviews of miners’ lung x-rays by radiologists certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and designated “B-readers.”
The number of CWP cases where the B-readers failed to reach consensus skyrocketed. In Kentucky in 2006, 450 claims were dismissed and only 36 received awards.
As the number of dismissals mounted, the number of awards plummeted until 2012 when there were zero CWP compensation awards in Kentucky.
It was as if black lung disease had been eradicated.
But of course it was not. Multiple studies, including a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found “… the largest cluster of progressive massive fibrosis ever reported in the scientific literature” for miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
In other words, more miners than ever before are contracting a disease we know how to prevent. An entirely new generation of miners has been sentenced to living a life tethered to an oxygen bottle before succumbing to a slow, choking death.
Prevention of CWP is simple, if coal operators will follow respirable coal-dust regulations. But the Kentucky mine safety and health apparatus has been destroyed by the state legislature over the past decade, meaning companies are free to operate outside the law without fear of action by the state.
On May 24, 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the consensus reading process enacted in 2006 for evaluating CWP was unconstitutional.
As a result, 43 percent of claimants received awards or reached agreement for compensation between Jan. 1, 2013 and Sept. 13, 2016.
But once again, the General Assembly this year bowed to the coal companies and passed House Bill 2, which effectively turns back the clock on Kentucky’s coal workers by re-instituting a form of the failed and ineffective B-reader consensus process.
Worse, HB 2 included all claims for occupational disease for all workers compensation — including asbestosis, silicosis and mesothelioma — in its modified B-reader consensus process.
So now, Kentucky legislators who will not take steps to prevent miners from getting black lung are keeping them from getting the compensation they deserve when they do get it. And they will spread that pain — literally — to every worker in Kentucky, from coal miners to factory workers, truck drivers to teachers, who may contract an occupational disease at work.
HB 2 is an abomination. Every legislator who voted for it will have the blood of thousands of Kentucky workers on their hands.
Bill Londrigan is president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. Steve Earle is District 12 vice president of the United Mine Workers of America.