Regardless of one's opinions about coal, everyone can agree on the importance of mine workers' health and safety.
Remarkable success has been achieved in reducing fatalities and injuries in the coal mining industry, through collaborative efforts of government, industry and labor groups. Last year marked the lowest fatality and injury rates in the history of U.S. mining, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
However, recent data indicate that rates of black lung disease — a debilitating condition similar to the long-term effects of tobacco smoking — could be increasing among coal miners in central Appalachia. Breathing coal dust over the course of a working life can cause the disease.
According to studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the highest prevalence of black lung is among miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
The current rise is particularly troublesome as the disease had been in decline for more than four decades, since the adoption of the 1968 Mine Safety Act. Research also indicates that miners today could be developing severe cases of the disease at younger ages.
The cause of the increase is uncertain. It could be due to changes in work practices, the mining of thinner seams of coal or failure to comply with existing regulations.
Given that chronic lung conditions, including black lung, are irreversible, prevention is key to combatting the disease. This requires a concerted public health approach involving coal miners, industry officials, government administrators and health and safety personnel, as well as public support.
The federal government is proposing new rules to tighten the coal dust standard, in addition to modifying the procedures by which compliance is determined. It is difficult to determine or predict the extent to which regulatory changes will have the intended consequences of lowering exposure to coal dust and, ideally, reducing incidence of black lung disease.
The history of public health has demonstrated the importance of regulatory interventions — such as seat belt laws or routine restaurant inspections — in reducing injury and illness.
On Aug. 22, researchers, government officials, industry representatives and health and safety professionals will gather at the Hilton Lexington Downtown for a daylong conference. Topics will include the epidemiology of black lung disease among miners in Appalachia.
For information about the conference or to register, go to CECentral.com/live/6851. The public is welcome but registration is required. The cost is $25, including lunch.
Steven Browning is an assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health and assistant director of Central Appalachian Regional Education