Black-lung disease underreported, federal mine-safety chief says

In November 2010, Bruce Maggard called up to the top at an underground coal mine in Perry County to alert them that a car was coming back up the mine shaft.
In November 2010, Bruce Maggard called up to the top at an underground coal mine in Perry County to alert them that a car was coming back up the mine shaft. Herald-Leader

An analysis shows serious underreporting of the extent of black-lung disease among miners, according to the head of the federal mine-safety agency.

In Kentucky, for example, coal companies have reported only 112 cases of black lung to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration since 2010, even though miners in the state were awarded benefits in 1,442 initial claims to the federal black-lung fund during the same period, the agency said.

MSHA chief Joe Main said the numbers indicate the debilitating disease is more prevalent than reported by his agency, which is charged with protecting miners, or by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which provides X-rays for miners.

“We know there are some big holes here,” said Main, who released statistics on black lung last week.

Main said MSHA was trying to figure out the reason for the differences in black-lung numbers among federal agencies.

However, the numbers make clear the disease persists as a serious problem more than four decades after Congress first approved rules intended to stamp it out, he said.

And that underscores the need for new rules being phased in at the nation’s coal mines to reduce miners’ exposure to breathable dust, Main said.

Inhaling particles of coal and silica churned up during mining is the cause of black lung, an incurable, torturous disease that chokes off breathing.

The disease has been the primary or contributing cause of death for more than 76,000 miners since 1968, costing the government $45 billion in benefits to miners and their families.

More than 40 percent of longtime miners in some regions got black lung before Congress approved rules in 1969 limiting underground miners' exposure to coal dust.

The prevalence of the disease dropped sharply afterward, reaching 2 percent in screenings conducted from 1995 to 1999, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH.

But since then, the prevalence of the disease has rebounded. In Eastern Kentucky, for instance, 9 percent of all miners screened in one NIOSH program from 2005 through 2009 had the disease.

And in 2014, NIOSH researchers reported that the most deadly form of the disease, progressive massive fibrosis, had spiked to the worst level in 40 years.

Researchers have identified a number of possible factors for the upswing, including miners working longer shifts, meaning longer exposure to dust; more mining of thinner coal seams in Central Appalachia, which requires cutting through more rock; inadequate dust-control rules; and failure by coal companies to comply with the rules.

Stephen A. Sanders, director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, told a congressional subcommittee last month that miners have often told him about cheating that occurred on dust sampling, with companies placing dust monitors in the fresh-air intake, rather than at the working face where machines can kick out clouds of dust.

“Miners tell me all the time that the dust was thick in the mine where they worked,” said Sanders, who represents miners in black-lung cases.

Coal industry officials contend most companies comply with health and safety rules.

“Today exemplary safety performers view adherence with regulatory requirements as the starting point, not as the finish line,” Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of the National Mining Association, testified before the congressional subcommittee.

Watzman acknowledged there were “bad actors” in need of enforcement, but he urged an approach that includes analysis and prevention of risks and encourages cooperation between the industry and regulators.

MSHA took a fresh look at black-lung statistics after a newsletter called Mine Safety Health and News reported last month on differing numbers at the agency and NIOSH.

The MSHA review showed that since 2010, coal operators across the country reported 701 cases of black lung to the agency. Coal operators are required to report known cases of occupational injury and illness.

In the same period, however, miners filed 14,799 first-time claims for federal compensation, with Kentucky having the highest total, MSHA said.

Miners file such claims with a separate agency.

Main said that during the past five years, NIOSH notified 488 active coal miners in 18 states that chest X-rays showed evidence of black lung.

However, mine operators in only nine states reported black-lung cases to MSHA.

Operators in Illinois and Indiana reported only one case to MSHA in five years, but NIOSH identified 47 miners with the disease in those two states, MSHA said.

One reason for the gaps might be that miners had retired or left the job and didn’t tell their former employers about being diagnosed with black lung.

Working miners might not have told their employers, either, Main said.

Safety advocates said some miners might not report black lung to their employers — or even get tested —for fear the company will try to get rid of them.

Only about a third of the miners eligible for X-ray screenings by NIOSH actually get them.

Phil Smith, an official with the United Mine Workers of America, told Mine Safety and Health News that some miners might not want to know if they have black lung until they’re ready to retire.

“It's a death sentence, and not all of us are ready to hear that at age 35,” Smith told the newsletter.

MSHA’s review of black-lung reporting comes against the backdrop of a dispute over new dust-control rules the agency began phasing in last year.

The changes include a lower legal limit on exposure to dust, the use of personal dust monitors for miners and more comprehensive monitoring for dust.

For instance, the old rules allowed companies to take samples when there was less production going on, meaning less dust would be generated. The new rule requires dust samples be taken when production is at least 80 percent of capacity.

Main said that the methods in use for decades left miners working in unhealthy dust for days while samples were analyzed, but that the personal dust monitors will provide real-time information so miners and companies can take measures such as adjusting ventilation.

The requirement for personal dust monitors and more frequent sampling takes effect in February.

Coal companies and industry groups have challenged the new dust standards, arguing that MSHA overstepped its authority in adopting the rules, relied on flawed data and required use of an inferior sampling method, among other things.

The use of rock dust in mines — which companies must apply to keep coal dust from exploding — affects the accuracy of the personal dust monitors, the coal industry argues.

Main, however, said peer-reviewed tests have proven the monitors can measure breathable dust in coal mines accurately.

“We need to continue our actions to end this unnecessary plague on coal miners,” Main said in a letter to Watzman last month. “The controls in place prior to the rule’s implementation last year simply failed to protect miners from the horrific disease.”