Coal miners working
More coal miners are dying from a disease called black lung, which is caused by improper safety procedures in coal mines. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

More miners in the United States are succumbing to a deadly condition known as Black Lung. Black Lung is acquired by inhaling dust from rock, metal and other materials underground for years. The condition is less prevalent than in previous decades, but it is becoming more common.

Controversial company blasted for condition of workers

Massey Energy, the company involved in the Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners, has another black mark on its reputation. Autopsies of the men who were killed in the mine explosion on April 5 of last year revealed that 75 percent of the victims had some stage of the disease known as “black lung” or “coal miner’s lung,” according to MSNBC. The disease, officially known as coal workers pneumoconiosis or CWP, technically describes a range of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis brought on by years of exposure to and inhalation of coal dust and other particles. The number of miners who develop the disease is increasing as well.

Disturbing increase in number of afflicted

Many hard-fought battles have been waged for decades in order to improve the plight of miners and reduce the incidence of black lung. Current estimates are that nearly 1,500 miners die annually from the disease. In the late 1970s, about 35 percent of miners acquired CWP, but stricter safety measures caused a decline in the number of cases until the late 1990s, when the rate reached 7 percent. However, by the mid-2000s, the rate had increased to more then 10 percent again. The bulk of all deaths from CWP are in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, with Pennsylvania accounting for most of them. Of the men in the Big Branch disaster, 17 of 24 had some form of the disease, including men as young as 25. Five of the men found to have CWP in those autopsies had been involved in mining for less than 10 years. Black lung normally only affects those who have been mining for decades.

Controversial company slammed by investigators

Massey Energy, the company that owned and operated the Big Branch Mine, was taken to task recently for safety failures that led to the mine collapse disaster, according to Reuters. A state investigation of the incident, ordered in 2010 by then West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, concluded that the accident “was man made” and that Massey could have avoided the incident by following basic safety procedures. The Mining Health and Safety Administration is still investigating the incident. The United Mine Workers of America has repeatedly blasted Massey for ignoring safety conditions in its mines. Massey does not employ any unionized workers. Throughout history, many safety improvements in mining came about because of unions. Union membership in mining has declined by nearly 50 percent since 1994, according to a 2004 study by Cornell University, around the same time that the rate of black lung began rising.




Cornell University study on Union Membership (PDF – Requires Adobe Reader):

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