By Kim Smiley
Did you know that black lung disease has killed 70,000 coal miners since 1970? Despite regulations designed to protect them, modern coal miners still face very real danger from coal dust. Changes to the mining industry seem to be exacerbating this long standing issue.
Black lung disease, as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis is colloquially known, is caused by inhalation of coal dust, but there is more to the issue that needs to be understood. The problem of miners suffering from black lung disease can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis. Cause Maps lay out the different causes that contribute to an issue visually to illustrate the cause-and-effect relationships. (To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.)
Coal dust is dangerous because it accumulates in the lungs and can cause long-term lung damage and breathing difficulties. It is irreversible and there is no proven effective treatment. Death can occur in severe cases. The only option to fight this disease is prevention.
Black lung disease has a long history and concern about it first came to head in the 1960s. A strike by 40,000 West Virginia coal miners pushed passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. This legislation limited coal dust exposure to 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air, which was significantly less than most miners were being exposed to at that time. At first it seemed that the limits were effective in dramatically limiting black lung disease, but some are now worried about a resurgence of the disease.
Some speculate that changes in the mining industry are putting miners at greater risk for black lung disease. The more dust that miners inhale, the greater the health risk and miners are both working longer hours and using equipment that potentially creates more dust. The average workweek grew 11 hours since the 1970s which means miners are potentially exposed to dust for hundreds of more hours each year. Technological advances have resulted in mining technology that is more powerful and can cut through coal faster, which can result in more dust. The amount of coal produced per hour of work has nearly tripled since the 1970s. These changes make it more challenging to prevent inhalation of dangerous levels of coal dust. Increase in demand as well as the rising price of coal has driven these changes because it’s profitable to mine coal as quickly as possible. Miners are also willing to work in the evolving conditions because mining provides a better living than other jobs available.
One of the most alarming pieces of evidence that cases of black lung may be increasing came from autopsies of the 29 miners killed in the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010. The medical examiner was able to test tissue from 24 of the victims’ lungs and he found that 71% of those tested had black lung disease, a truly distressing percentage. Some of the miners were relatively young and had a limited amount of time on the job.
There is no clear agreement on the best way to prevent black lung disease. People are still trying to bound the problem and understand how significant the issue is. But working to understand the problem is always the best first step to trying to solve it.