Recent news reports about coal mining have pulled me back to thinking about workers—having spent the bulk of my pre-UCS career in occupational health (teaching in medical schools and working for our country’s workplace health and safety research agency, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health/NIOSH). With the critical focus on climate change and the need to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and other dangerous pollutants from coal-burning power plants, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the health impacts coal has on the brave souls who mine it and on their families who share in their suffering.
Just last Sunday (November 17), two workers were killed and 20 others were injured in a mining accident in southwestern Colorado. Add these to the other 19 fatalities that occurred in 2013, surpassing the number of workers (20) who lost their lives in U.S. coal mining accidents in 2012. And some may remember the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in one tragic and preventable event.
Deaths due to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung) also fail to get “above the fold” attention in most news outlets. This despite the fact that between 1997 and 2007, 8,111 U.S. miners died of black lung, a deadly, debilitating, and irreversible lung disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust. This figure doesn’t begin to capture the years of disability and hardship that workers with black lung endure (along with their families who bear witness to their loved ones’ struggle to breathe and live their lives).
And while once on the wane, black lung is re-emerging and changing. We now see its occurrence in younger workers, with more limited time and exposure in the mines.
Too often, coal operators flout safety regulations and fail to implement well-established preventive measures that would stem the tide of death, illness, and disability in these workers. Adding insult to injury, we’ve also witnessed some coal companies attempt to evade their pension and health care obligations to their (often disabled) retirees.
But here’s what really got me: the series “Breathless and Burdened”, the product of a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC television. The series is a heart-breaking and thoroughly disheartening exposé of how doctors and lawyers hired by coal companies have perverted the federal program designed to help these disabled miners and their family. I’m talking about lawyers who have hidden evidence, and doctors who consistently read X-rays as showing no evidence of complicated black lung (which entitles disabled workers to pretty paltry benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Program)—and in many cases, reporting no evidence of black lung at all. These doctors appear to stand by their diagnoses, even in the face of conflicting reports by independent medical experts and autopsy evidence to the contrary.
It’s encouraging that Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has suspended its pneumoconiosis X-ray reading program while it conducts a review in the wake of the exposé. Both the process and the findings of the review will be informative.
But the series also raises larger issues of importance—issues of undue corporate influence and the independence of our experts. It underscores the vital need for transparency to ensure that the science and evidence we rely on are untainted to prevent the erosion of trust in the institutions we rely on to protect the health and legal rights of our citizens.
And, of course, central to this story is the fate of the miners, their families, and communities who continue to risk their lives and health to mine the coal while also confronting the changes and hardships that will come as we seek to transition to a low-carbon economy. As a speaker at our recent forum on economic diversification in West Virginia said, “If coal is King, he hasn’t taken very good care of his subjects.” It’s absolutely essential that we ensure a just transition for these individuals who have already given so much.