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A dark cloud once again descends on coal miners

Coal miners here in West Virginia and surrounding states have always faced grave risks in their job. You and your employer probably take significant steps to prevent injuries due to events such as cave-ins and explosions. Modern technology and equipment may help make your job safer, but researchers recently discovered that an old danger has resurfaced that you probably didn't count on having to face.

Epidemiologists with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health thought they had eradicated black lung disease back in the 1990s. Cases dropped to nearly nothing and everyone went about their business. Recently, however, this dark cloud over the coal mining industry has made a dangerous resurgence.

What NIOSH discovered

On Feb. 6, the "Journal of the American Medical Association" published a research letter indicating the NIOSH discovered that hundreds of coal miners received diagnoses of complicated black lung disease, also called progressive massive fibrosis, between 2013 and 2017. All 416 cases identified during that time appear to have come out of three central Appalachia clinics. NIOSH also found hundreds of other cases in other states with coal mining operations.

Since that data was compiled, approximately 154 new cases have surfaced. One NIOSH epidemiologist says there hasn't ever been such a large concentration of cases in one area. Some believe these numbers don't adequately illustrate the scope of the problem since these are only the people in the worst stages of the disease.

NIOSH believes that the following may contribute to the large numbers of cases:

  • Mining thinner coal seams
  • Using massive mining machines
  • Working longer shifts

There is even speculation that retirement and layoffs prevented many former coal miners from getting to a doctor when they first developed symptoms.

Complicated black lung

Regardless of whether working above or below ground, when coal miners inhale silica and coal dust, they may begin to have trouble breathing. You may find yourself coughing, wheezing and gasping for air. Without a lung transplant, which is the only cure for this disease, you could die of suffocation. However, your health has to be good enough for a transplant.

It's a catch-22. You can't breathe and your health is declining, but you have to be in good health in order to qualify for the cure. In the past, the ages of miners diagnosed with complicated black lung disease ranged from 60s to 80s. Now, the disease can strike miners anywhere from their 30s to 50s. In addition, they work for fewer years (20 or less) before diagnosis than in the past.

If you are one of the approximately 50,000 coal miners in the country, you may be at an increased risk for this often-fatal disease.

Have you received a diagnosis of complicated black lung?

If you are one of the unlucky ones who received, or may receive, such a diagnosis, you may be able to receive compensation. Black lung compensation programs provide wage replacement and medical benefits to those suffering from this condition.

Obtaining those benefits is not always easy, however, especially as you struggle to deal with the physical and emotional fallout of your diagnosis. Fortunately, you don't have to go through the claims process alone.

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