But a NIOSH report last week revealed that
a greater proportion of miners in Eastern Kentucky and western Virginia suffer from severe cases of black lung than elsewhere in the nation, a federal study shows.What's going on?
And they are getting it at an earlier age.
"This shouldn't be happening," said Dr. Vinicius Antao, lead researcher on an October 2005 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The study found a concentration of severe black lung cases among active miners in six states: Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama and Colorado.
Antao said his research hasn't identified the reason, but his two theories are excessive dust levels or a more toxic type of coal mined in the region.The Louisville Courier Journal agrees and adds some more possible reasons:
Although the percentages of severe and progressive black lung cases seem small, they indicate "inadequate prevention measures in specific regions," Antao's study states.
Retired miner George Massey, 53, of Benham, Ky., said he's not surprised by the findings.
"The main objective of the companies is to get as much coal as they can," he said. "Some will mine without water and without ventilation. You're gonna suck up everything you can get."
The existing coal dust limit of two milligrams per cubic meter isn't low enough. After all, as far back as 1995 NIOSH recommended a figure of one milligram per cubic meter.The bottom line, according to the Journal, is that more aggressive government action is needed:
In addition, the recent NIOSH findings seem to confirm safety advocates' familiar claims that the kind of small, non-union operation so prevalent in Eastern Kentucky just doesn't follow the rules.
Curtains may not be hung to direct fresh air where it's needed most.
Dust suppression water spray devices may not be fixed immediately when they break down.
Pre-shift and on-shift inspections may not document these problems, so they can be quickly corrected.
In such mines, the culture of production is stronger than the culture of safety.
The latest NIOSH black lung study argues strongly for progress on all fronts: tougher dust standards, better industry practices and improved technology.
But none of that will materialize, absent a commitment from top federal and state regulators to increased oversight and stiffer penalties. That's an old story, too.