Increased silica exposure is causing a surge in the number of coal miners contracting pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. Today’s miners are now at a higher risk of developing this condition in a shorter time period than their predecessors. With proper training and access to proper personal protection equipment, this disease could be prevented.
Silica and Coal…A Dangerous Combination
The increases in black lung are believed to be linked to increased silica exposure. With coal veins becoming thinner, the amount of rock between coal seams has become greater. As this rock is crushed with modern machinery, workers are exposed to dangerous silica dust, placing them at risk of developing black lung disease and silicosis, another serious lung disease.
One in Five Miners Affected
Traditionally, black lung disease occurred in miners who worked in mines for 20 years or more inhaling coal dust. Today, it is often found in workers who have worked just five years in mines. The most severe type of this condition, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) has increased among miners since 2000. PMF is showing up in today’s miners at an alarming rate with one in five miners in Appalachia now affected.
Black lung is incurable and eventually leads to death. Doctors can prescribe inhaled steroids to help patients breathe more easily. Some patients may require oxygen or require a lung transplant when treatments fail to reduce the severity of symptoms.
Preventing Black Lung and Silicosis
Both lung diseases can be prevented by:
- Having access to appropriate dust controls
- Training in proper work practices
- Wearing a properly fitted respirator
- Workplace enforcement of respirator use
Compensation Programs for Black Lung Sufferers
Current workers can seek screening for black lung through the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. Workers who are diagnosed or become totally disabled because the disease may be eligible for federal and state compensation programs. The federal government’s program provides medical coverage for affected workers and their families under the Black Lung Benefits Act. In some cases, the employer may be required to pay the worker’s benefits under this law. In Illinois, workers who develop black lung may also be eligible for state workers’ compensation benefits if the last exposure was within the past three years.