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Black lung: A tragic lack of awareness and standards

On Behalf of | Dec 6, 2021 | Black Lung

Coal mining did not come of age without various battles that occurred during the dawning of the 20th century. Labor tussles and mine wars were commonplace in the fight for valuable territory. Over time, the violence ceased, and the industry grew in prominence and sophistication as a legitimate business.

That doesn’t mean that battles stopped. The fight just took a different form, focusing more on the aftermath of a career in coal mines.

The struggles continue

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH), in 2018, twenty percent of Appalachian workers who made mining their career have been diagnosed with black lung disease. The number of miners suffering from the illnesses peaked in 1970 and began to decline one year after the passage of the Mine Safety Act of 1969.

However, the stop in the surge would be tragically temporary. The nineties saw the introduction of metallurgical coal, used in the making of steel. However, federal standards did not evolve with the new and more valuable type of coal. The current requirements for dust exposure regulation have been in existence for 40 years with no signs of any changes.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Inspector general at the Department of labor have lobbied for dust reductions that reflect both thermal coal and newer metallurgical coal by one-half. However, they are powerless in implementing new standards. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has the final say, and they admit that they have heard the pleas. Still, nothing has changed.

The 1980s and 1990s saw more than 90 percent of federal black lung claims denied. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, awards increased to nearly a third. Awareness of medical coverage, particularly free pulmonary care and cash payments of up to $700 a month, is also a problem. Far too many stricken miners continue to cover the expenses on their own or use up the funds in their  benefits cards.

Few would argue that coal miners deserve better.