Truck loading coal

Kentucky Coal Workers’ Black Lung Disease

Coal miners in Kentucky know well the threat of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung disease. They go to work in coal mines to earn a living and support their families. Coal workers are willing to meet the physical challenges of mining and extraction jobs. But if they are injured or develop a work-related disease, they expect to be protected by Kentucky’s workers’ compensation laws and the federal Black Lung Benefits Act.

Unfortunately, many coal workers who become seriously ill after years of working in the coal industry run into obstacles when they seek black lung disease benefits. A 2018 Kentucky law and the changes it made to the KY workers’ comp system have made it difficult for a miner on his own to obtain benefits based on a diagnosis of CWP.

It takes courage to work in the coal mines. It also takes courage to fight for the workers’ comp and federal benefits if you develop black lung disease and your claim is denied. The experienced workers’ compensation lawyers from Morgan, Collins, Yeast & Salyer will fight beside you to ensure that you have all the Kentucky Courage you need.

Contact us today to set up a free evaluation of your black lung disease claim. Our law firm has recovered more than $200 million in workers’ compensation benefits for our hardworking Kentucky clients. We stand ready to fight for you.

What Are the Causes of Black Lung Disease?

coal mining iconBlack lung disease is the common name for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Black lung disease is caused by breathing dust and is characterized by inflammation, coughing and damage to lung tissue.

In short, regular exposure to coal dust can cause scarring in the lungs, which impairs the ability to breathe. The harmful effects of coal dust that settles in air sacs deep in the lungs may not show up for many years after exposure. Depending on the amount of scarring in the lungs, a patient may be diagnosed with simple pneumoconiosis or complicated pneumoconiosis, also called progressive massive fibrosis.

There is no cure for coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. But treatment can help manage symptoms and improve coal workers’ quality of life.

Black lung disease is considered an occupational disease because it is only caused by coal dust and only those workers who work in or near coal mines are likely to develop CWP.

Unfortunately, after decades of improvement, the number of cases of black lung disease is on the rise again. A 2018 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said:

One in 10 underground coal miners who have worked in mines for at least 25 years were identified as having black lung. Coal miners in central Appalachia [Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia] are disproportionately affected with as many as 1 in 5 having evidence of black lung — the highest level recorded in 25 years.

The increase in the incidence of black lung disease may be due to changes in mining technology. Modern mining allows extraction of higher volumes of coal in a given time period and generates finer dust particles than can be inhaled more deeply into the lungs.

What Are the Symptoms of Black Lung Disease?

A coal worker in the early stages of black lung disease is likely to experience:

  • Cough, sometimes bringing up black sputum (mucus)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness.

If pulmonary (lung) fibrosis becomes severe, low blood-oxygen levels can cause additional symptoms and put stress on other organs, such as the heart and brain. The symptoms of advanced pulmonary fibrosis may include:

  • Shortness of breath, particularly during physical activity
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Gradual unintended weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Aching joints and muscles
  • Clubbing (widening and rounding) of the tips of the fingers or toes.

To diagnose black lung disease, a doctor performs breathing tests to measure the lungs’ ability to move oxygen. The doctor also may order imaging tests, such as chest X-ray, to look for inflammation or scarring.

A miner suffering early-stage symptoms of black lung disease may be prescribed medication and breathing treatments to help open airways and decrease inflammation. Doctors may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation and exercise designed to help patients with chronic lung conditions stay active.

At later stages of CWP, supplemental oxygen may be prescribed to help get more air into the lungs. The black lung patient at this stage of the disease can also look forward to regular testing to measure lung function, as well as chest X-rays to monitor the CWP and look for signs of lung cancer.

Black Lung Benefits for Kentucky Miners

Black lung disease is completely preventable and would not occur without exposure to hazardous coal dust, NIOSH says in a 2018 report. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set safety standards to help workers avoid the disease. All mines are subject to federal limits on how much coal dust is allowed in the air at a given period.

Workers’ compensation insurance, which most employers are required to have, pays benefits to those who are injured on the job or develop work-related diseases such as black lung.

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance program. It provides benefits to those who have suffered injury or illness while on the job. A coal worker who has contracted black lung disease would not need to prove negligence on the part of a mine owner or any other party to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. A miner only needs to demonstrate that his disease was contracted while working as a coal miner or in some other coal industry position.

A coal miner diagnosed with black lung disease in Kentucky is eligible for:

  • Payment of all medical expenses
  • Payment for lost wages (usually two-thirds of a person’s average weekly wage)
  • Return-to-work services (occupational and/or vocational rehabilitation, education, training)
  • Reimbursements for travel, medical devices, and prescriptions.

An employee awarded benefits continue to receive checks for as long as he or she qualifies for workers’ compensation, but most settlements consist of lump-sum amounts.

Federal Black Lung Disease Benefits for Miners and their Families

A miner who is totally disabled by CWP arising out of coal mine employment also may qualify for benefits under the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, as amended by the Black Lung Benefits Act. The program provides monthly payments to coal miners and to deceased miners’ dependent survivors, as well as medical benefits to miners.

Present and former coal miners may receive diagnostic testing, such as chest X-rays, pulmonary function studies (breathing test), arterial blood gas studies, and physical exams.

Medical coverage includes costs of prescription drugs, office visits, and hospitalizations, and, with specific approval, durable medical equipment, such as hospital beds, home oxygen and nebulizers; outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation therapy; and home nursing visits.

Kentucky Roadblocks to Black Lung Benefits

coal mining worker with black lung

Unfortunately, proving that you have black lung disease has become a major obstacle to obtaining workers’ compensation benefits in Kentucky.

In 2018, Kentucky made many changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system in legislation known as House Bill 2. Among the changes was to bar radiologists, who analyze X-rays, from serving as designated evaluators in black lung claims. Instead, only certain pulmonologists could serve in that role.

To obtain benefits, a black lung victim’s claim must include a blood gas analysis indicating breathing impairment and an X-ray demonstrating that the impairment is caused at least in part by black lung disease. Typically, a pulmonologist would perform and interpret the blood gas study, and a radiologist would interpret X-rays of the lungs.

A February 2020 report by the Public Radio Service of Western Kentucky University said the two pulmonologists serving in the new system “both have reputations for being more sympathetic to industry.” According to the report, they disagreed with the initial diagnosis of black lung disease in 85 percent of cases they have examined. Though they are not the last word on a claim, of 161 claims filed for workers’ comp benefits based on diagnoses of black lung, only 16 coal miners were awarded benefits in 2019.

Our KY Black Lung Benefits Attorneys Can Help

If you or someone close to you has developed black lung disease and you are having difficulty obtaining benefits, the attorneys at Morgan, Collins, Yeast & Salyer can help you build a persuasive case. We know the law and understand the rights of coal workers. If your application for Kentucky workers’ compensation benefits has been denied, we can file an appeal for you. We can gather testimony from medical experts to support your claim. We also can guide you through the process of seeking federal benefits.

Morgan, Collins, Yeast & Salyer has offices conveniently located across Kentucky and the initial consultation is free. Contact us by phone or by filling out a contact form online. Together, we’ll show them what Kentucky Courage means and fight to win all the benefits you are entitled to. Contact us now.