While the belief itself is hard to believe, there was once a time, close to 50 years ago, when people thought black lung disease was merely a myth. Coal dust was harmless, with doctors citing the benefits of inhalation that protected miners from tuberculosis.
Even if it did exist, it wouldn’t do any harm. And if harm came to a miner who could no longer work, the likelihood of compensation was minimal at best.
If money were an option, a mine owner would turn to a board composed of doctors hired by the coal companies. From there, these “experts” would conduct thorough studies that would last anywhere from five to 15 years, just enough time for their problem to disappear in the form of claimants dying.
Decades worth of denials and deaths
The coal industry has undergone significant changes. However, the strategies involved in denying benefits seemingly remain the same, despite a disease that dates back to the 19th century and has killed countless coal miners.
Illnesses increased in the 1930s and 1940s, with the industry citing silica as the sole toxic mineral causing black lung, establishing another roadblock for afflicted miners. By the 1950s and 1960s, compelling evidence revealed that coal dust was the culprit, giving the industry another “out,” when they cited pneumoconiosis, the most severe form of black lung, as the only cause of breathing problems.
The fight continued into the 1990s, with coal industry leaders battling over the inclusion of emphysema and chronic bronchitis into the black lung definition. When the Labor Department formally connected those diseases to coal dust, the battle was over as the 21st century dawned.
Fast forward to today. While the disease is acknowledged, tactics for denying claims continue, specifically over a wide range of additional illnesses under the “black lung” umbrella. What results is the protracted battles that continue today, in spite of a century’s worth of evidence to the contrary.