Alarmed that black lung disease routinely goes unreported decades after it was discovered among miners, federal mine safety officials are touting new regulations that will step up monitoring for the coal dust that causes the deadly disease.
Beginning Feb. 1, the Mine Safety and Health Administration will require coal operators to increase the number of air samples taken in underground mines. The agency also will require miners working in the dustiest underground conditions to wear personal devices that give real-time readings on air quality.
The government’s top mine safety official, Joe Main, said pneumoconiosis, which kills about 1,000 coal miners a year, is likely afflicting far more miners than the data collected by his agency shows. From October 2010 through the end of September, mine operators reported 701 cases of black lung, but in a four-year span from 2010 to 2014, 3,675 miners were awarded black lung benefits, according to MSHA.
“It drives home the point we really need to do more to end this disease,” Main, an assistant Labor secretary who runs MSHA, told The Associated Press.
Industry officials say there are many reasons for the reporting discrepancy. However, they say that because miners are not required to report a diagnosis to their employer, the workers should be screened for black lung disease and be required to report a diagnosis.
Black lung has no cure and causes significant breathing problems, degrading movement and sometimes leading to early death. Since there is no cure, Main said, the focus is on prevention. That means limiting exposure to coal dust in underground mines.
Main said some underground mines have been found not using the proper controls to mitigate dust. Since 2010, Federal inspectors found more than 30 mines violating safety laws by operating without sufficient dust controls, meaning miners could have been exposed to excess dust.
But getting accurate numbers on black lung cases has been a challenge. Mining companies are required to report confirmed cases of black lung that they learn of to MSHA, but many miners are afraid of revealing a diagnosis.
“The common belief is that it’s not helpful to your chances of continued employment if you disclose that you’ve been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis,” said Steve Sanders, a lawyer with the Appalachian Law Center, which helps miners with black lung benefit claims. “Whether it’s true or not, people believe it.”
Autopsies on 24 of the 29 miners killed in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, the deadliest mining disaster in four decades, revealed that 17 had evidence of black lung disease. The operator of the mine, Massey Energy, had reported just one case since 2010.
MSHA said Kentucky mine operators have reported 112 cases to the agency since 2010, but in that same time frame there were 1,442 awarded claims for federal black lung compensation.
In many cases, coal miners either don’t disclose the illness while they’re working or don’t seek federal benefits until after they’ve left the mining profession, meaning operators may not be aware of many cases, Main said.
Industry officials agree better reporting is needed but balk at the new rules, arguing the requirements will slow down production in already trying financial times. The new February regulation, the second phase of new mine dust rules set in motion last year, calls for 15 valid samples each quarter, double the previous standard.
Bruce Watzman, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the industry group recommended that all mining employees be required to undergo lung screening, along with a mandatory requirement that miners disclose the results if they are diagnosed as having a lung impairment. Underground miners are offered free screenings for the disease by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, but only about a third agree to them, according to NIOSH.
NIOSH screened 15,668 working miners from 2010 to 2014 and found 464 cases of pneumoconiosis among them.
Watzman said the industry recommendations could have led to a better accounting of black lung cases.
“There is no simple answer to explain the difference in the (reporting) numbers,” he said.
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