A condition specific to coal miners, black lung disease seemed to have been eradicated by the late 1990s, but it has resurfaced in the last decade. It arises when miners inhale coal dust, which their immune system tries to remove from their lungs. Unfortunately, this process tends to result in lung damage and scar tissue. This can cause serious and sometimes fatal harm by shrinking the volume of the lungs, which turn black. Most incidents of black lung result from exposure in underground mines, but it can occur above ground when coal is being processed.
People often do not recognize black lung disease at the outset. If a miner smokes cigarettes or has pre-existing conditions, the symptoms of black lung disease might be attributed to those factors. Sometimes they can be confused with bronchitis or other respiratory illnesses. Contrary to common belief, miners can develop black lung after just a few years of exposure. It can advance swiftly to progressive massive fibrosis, which can be lethal even for miners who are relatively young.
Fighting Black Lung Disease
As the description above suggests, black lung disease is a fast-moving, extremely dangerous condition. If you are a coal miner who may have been exposed, or if your loved one is displaying symptoms, you should get your condition diagnosed promptly. Due to the dangerous nature of the job, miners may want to have a doctor review their lungs on a regular basis to catch any condition at the earliest stage. Many of these health assessments are provided free of charge by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
There is no known cure for the disease, so the main solution is to avoid any further exposure to coal dust. If you have received a diagnosis of black lung disease, you have a legal right to a transfer to another position that allows you to work for the same salary in an area with a limited concentration of coal dust.
Most types of care are designed to alleviate breathing problems to the extent possible. Some patients may need an oxygen tank or a lung transplant. Treatments often have only a temporary effect, and more drastic remedies may be limited to certain patients who are in good physical condition.
Benefits for Black Lung Disease
You will need to file a claim for benefits within a certain time period, defined by your state workers’ compensation law. The time period may begin when you received a diagnosis of black lung disease or when you started suffering from symptoms and knew or should have known that your exposure to coal dust caused them. In other cases, the time period may extend from the date of your last exposure to coal dust. Getting benefits may be challenging, depending on where you live. Some states, such as Kentucky, do not recognize claims based on black lung disease unless the diagnosis comes from a pulmonologist on a specific list.
As an alternative to workers’ compensation benefits, a coal miner might pursue benefits under the federal Black Lung program, assuming that they are totally disabled because of the disease. This means that they can no longer work by using the same skills that they used in their previous job. Benefits cover medical costs and monthly wage replacement payments. Unfortunately, getting these benefits can be even harder than qualifying for workers’ compensation. If a miner receives both sets of benefits, their federal benefits will be reduced to account for their workers’ compensation benefits.
Both workers’ compensation and the federal program allow the spouse and children of a deceased miner to recover benefits after a death caused by black lung disease.