FRANKFORT — State and federal health officials said Friday they will conduct a study into why many underground coal miners decline free X-rays to check for black lung disease.
States with low rates of participation included West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In each of those states, fewer than a third of miners were opting to receive the health screenings provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
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Black lung advocates said many miners simply don't want to know whether they have the disease.
"What's the need in doing it?" asked Michael Cardwell, a Kentucky miner from Clay in Western Kentucky who has worked 30 years underground. "If you've got it, they won't do nothing for you."
United Mine Workers of America representative Steve Earle said workers' compensation laws have become so restrictive that most miners diagnosed with the debilitating disease don't qualify for benefits. So, he said, they forgo the health screenings that could make them "damaged goods" in the eyes of employers. "All the miners I know think it's an exercise in futility," Earle said.
The Kentucky Department for Public Health has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a study to determine the reasons why coal miners are skipping the screenings. CDC epidemiologist Margaret Riggs said researchers will canvass underground coal operations.
"People can speculate as to why, but no one has conducted a study like this to ask them," Riggs said Friday.
Coalfield lawyer Thomas Moak of Prestonsburg said he thinks the reason is that politicians have made it too difficult for sick miners to qualify for black lung compensation.
Moak said some miners also fear they might be forced to give up jobs that pay as much as $80,000 a year if they're diagnosed with black lung, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis.
NIOSH found that the percentage of miners receiving free X-rays varied from state to state over the past five years, from a low of 8 percent in West Virginia to a high of 100 percent in Illinois. In Kentucky, 22 percent of miners received the X-rays over the period, 23 percent in Pennsylvania, 29 percent in Virginia, 37 percent in Alabama, 44 percent in New Mexico, 66 percent in Utah, and 94 percent in Colorado.
"Some miners don't want to know if they have black lung," said Wes Addington, an attorney with Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg. "They may be afraid to find out."