Coal Miners and Coronavirus

coal mining worker with black lung

As many Americans stay home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic, Kentucky coal miners still go down to the mines, deemed an essential business, where the virus is one more potentially deadly threat coal miners face each working day.

Coal miners may be especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the working conditions and the significant incidence of lung damage from years of exposure to coal dust, silica and diesel exhaust, said the Washington Post, quoting medical researchers.

First identified in a Kentucky resident March 6, the coronavirus is spreading as incidences of black lung disease, lung cancer and COPD continue to rise among U.S. coal miners. Working and retired mine workers who have black lung or other pulmonary disease are seen as being at greater risk of becoming very ill if exposed to the coronavirus. The coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

UMWA Seeks Protection Against COVID-19 for Coal Miners

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has asked federal regulators to set uniform, enforceable guidelines to help protect coal miners from contracting COVID-19. In a letter dated March 24, UMWA President Cecil Roberts asked the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to require mine operators to:

  • Ensure that miners have access to N-95 respirators
  • Set procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts
  • Provide extra personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Create disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and other communal gathering places.

“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” Roberts said in the letter. “They get dressed, travel down the elevator together, ride in the same man trip, work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment, and use the same shower facilities.

“Many miners are also old and suffer from various underlying health conditions, such as pneumoconiosis, which the UMWA believes will greatly exacerbate the severity of the symptoms related to COVID-19; heart disease – a condition that in itself suppresses the immune response, leaving the afflicted more susceptible to harmful pathogens; and compromised immune systems.”

Roberts added that these high-risk miners often live in rural communities and have less access to medical care than is available in urban areas.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith told the Ohio Valley Resource that while some mines are voluntarily taking precautions to protect workers, the efforts are not uniform across the industry.

Blackhawk Mining, a Kentucky coal company operating nine mining complexes across three states, voluntarily shut down operations from March 23 through April 5 because of the pandemic. Its workers were not paid but kept their benefits, including health care, while on furlough.

As of this writing, the MSHA’s COVID-19 recommendations echo the CDC’s, which include avoiding close contact.

“MSHA is abiding by the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America, which are based on the CDC Interim Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential Coronavirus Disease,” the website says.

Of about 5,200 people in Kentucky who work in the coal industry, about 3,200 are underground miners and another 1,000 work in surface mines.

Kentucky Coal Miners at Risk Just for Breathing

Pulmonary disease is common among coal miners because of the air they breathe on long work shifts in and around the mines. Exposure to coal dust causes various respiratory diseases, including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), aka “black lung disease” or “miner’s lung,” and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Coal miners are also exposed to crystalline silica dust, which causes silicosis (a type of pulmonary fibrosis), COPD and other diseases.

Black lung disease causes inflammation of lung tissue, coughing and fibrosis, which is thickening or scarring of lung tissue. There is no cure, but treatment can help improve quality of life through management of symptoms. Black lung disease can lead to such complications as chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term inflammation of the breathing tubes, or lung cancer, as well as COPD.

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus production and wheezing.

Each of these lung diseases can lead to impairment, disability and premature death.

While it is generally thought that it takes many years of coal mine work to develop severe respiratory problems, two studies presented in 2019 said black lung, COPD and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases appear to account for a greater proportion of death in the younger generation of miners.

Recent reports have pointed to an unexplained increase in the occurrence of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) in recent years, most likely attributable to excess exposure to crystalline silica, according to the studies. Crystalline silica is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and most other types of rock.

An increase in the incidence of black lung disease in recent years has been potentially attributed to changes in mining technology. The new technology allows extraction of higher volumes of coal and surrounding rock in a given time period and creates finer dust particles than can be inhaled deeply into the lungs.

How Can A Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation Attorney Help Me?

If you have become ill or been injured while working in the Kentucky coal industry, you should be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, including reimbursement of medical costs, partial replacement of lost wages and, if needed, disability stipends.

If you are having difficulty obtaining workers’ compensation benefits, the Kentucky workers’ compensation lawyers of Morgan Collins Yeast & Salyer will fight for the full workers’ comp benefits you deserve. It takes Kentucky Courage to fight for comprehensive workers’ benefits while also battling a debilitating illness. Kentucky coal miners show courage every day. Our attorneys are ready to bring Kentucky courage and help you stand up for the full benefits available by law. Contact the experienced workers’ comp lawyers at Morgan, Collins, Yeast & Salyer today for a review of your case that is free, has no strings attached, and is available from the safety of your own home.