Almost one-half of the power used in the United States is generated by coal; more than 130,000 miners put their lives at risk to provide it. Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis (CWP) is caused by prolonged breathing of dust in coal mines.  Another name for CWP is Black Lung Disease.

Years ago, Congress ordered Black Lung to be eradicated from the coal industry, under the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.  This act was to protect miners by posing limits on exposure to dust, as well as adding increased benefits for families of coal miners.  For several years following this legislative enactment, the proportion of coal miners with Black Lung Disease went down.  However, in the last ten years, it is again on the rise.  Approximately 10,000 miners have died with CWP in the past decade, with younger workers developing severe and advanced cases.

Black Lung is a deadly, but preventable occupational disease.  It causes chronic coughing and shortness of breath.  Coal operators are required under the law to adhere to dust standards.  They have the necessary tools to control each miner’s exposure to respirable dust and silica.  Industries and miners must both ensure that control measures are applied and dust levels are accurately measured.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, possible reasons that this disease is once more increasing are:

  • Inadequacies in mandated coal mine dust regulations;
  • Failure to comply with regulations;
  • Lack of disease measures to accommodate changes in mining practices brought about by depletion of richer coal reserves;
  • Effects of working longer hours in recent years;
  • Missed opportunities by miners to be screened and take action to reduce dust exposure.
  • New mining techniques and machinery that create more hazardous exposure to dust.

NIOSH also has set up mobile screening units that travel to locations where mining takes place and offer free x-rays, and other free health evaluations to miners.  When early disease is suspected, miners should request transfer to a job where there is less dust exposure.

A set of rules is being considered by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that would require some miners to use a new technology, the continuous personal dust monitor.  These real-time monitors would allow the miners to know what they are exposed to and respond to it right away.  The cost is $10,000 per monitor, so it’s a pricey proposition.  However, mining-industry representative Bruce Watzman says the industry supports MSHA’s efforts.  “The statistics concern us.  We need to understand and address this problem.”  NIOSH states that the first priority to all men and women miners is their health and safety.

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