Workers’ Compensation for Black Lung Victims
Those whose work involves mining, transporting, or processing coal are at risk for developing black lung and other respiratory diseases. Black lung is a preventable illness, yet thousands of workers still suffer from its debilitating effects. The number of new cases per year in the U.S. reached its lowest point in 1988. Since that time, incidents of black lung have been steadily increasing, even though there are only one-third the number of coal miners in the U.S. now compared to 1979. In 2019, Pennsylvania had the highest total amount of distribution of Part C black lung claims and disbursements, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Respiratory Diseases on the Rise
To prevent deaths and serious injuries from the unsafe and unhealthy conditions and practices in the coal mines, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (the Coal Act). The Coal Act requires adherence to safety and health standards, site inspections, and employee training, as well as imposes mandatory fines and criminal penalties for non-compliance.
Despite an initial decrease in black lung disease diagnosis during the 1990s, rates of black lung are on the rise. Historically, black lung takes years to develop and has typically occurred primarily in retired miners over 50 years old. Recent evidence suggests that more young, active miners are developing the disease and that it is progressing more rapidly into advanced stages.
Other possible reasons for the uptick include the following:
- Some miners are working more hours, giving their lungs less time to rest
- New practices in coal mines may be releasing more dust
- Some miners are working deeper into old coal seams
Some health officials report that miners in Appalachia are using heavy blasting equipment that creates more dust as coal companies attempt to plumb the depths of played-out coal seams. Those who suspect they have contracted a work-related illness may be eligible for various types of benefits and should contact a local attorney to discuss their case as soon as possible.
What is Black Lung?
Black lung is a type of pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease caused by breathing dust that gets permanently deposited deep in the lungs. Also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), black lung is caused by long-term inhalation of coal mine dust. As particles settle into airways over time, healthy lung tissue becomes inflamed as the immune system tries to get rid of the dust. The disease progresses through two stages:
- Anthracosis or simple CWP. In this stage, it presents no noticeable symptoms other than coughing or periodic shortness of breath.
- Complicated CWP. Also called progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), nodules form in the lungs, restricting airflow and lowering blood oxygen levels. The lungs may also become discolored.
The progression of the diseases depends on the amount and type of dust inhaled, as well as the length of exposure. In the PMF stage, nodules begin to grow together and become larger, showing up as black spots on chest X-rays. In addition to black lung, other forms of pneumoconiosis include the following:
- A condition caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Roofers, shipbuilders, and construction workers are among those at risk for asbestosis.
- A lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust. Silicosis may be contracted by workers fabricating kitchen counter tops made from quartz.
- Metal-induced pneumoconiosis. This disease is caused by inhaling dust of metals, such as aluminum, iron, chromium, cobalt, or mercury.
- Also called brown lung, this disease is caused by cotton dust.
What are the Symptoms of Black Lung?
Early symptoms of Black Lung include the following:
- Coughing and potentially expelling black mucus
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
It may take years for advanced symptoms to appear, such as:
- Chronic bronchitis
- Recurring pneumonia
- Pulmonary emphysema
There is no known cure for black lung diseases. Doctors will prescribe medication, oxygen, and other means to prevent further lung damage and to ease symptoms.
Lungs provide the vital function of removing carbon dioxide waste from the blood. The scarring that results from black lung reduces the body’s capacity to eliminate waste and deliver oxygen-rich air to the bloodstream. The impact of these symptoms, even in early stages, is a diminished capacity to work.
How is Black Lung Diagnosed?
If you work in a mine, you are at risk for developing black lung. By the time symptoms appear, the disease may be well advanced. Methods for diagnosing black lung include:
- Spirometry test. This is a simple test in which you breathe into a tube repeatedly. It measures the volume of air that you can expel from your lungs and how much air you can exhale in one minute.
- Six-minute walk test. This test provides information on your ability to perform daily activities.
- X-ray or CT scan. This test will reveal any spots, masses, discoloration, or inflammation of the lungs.
If you suspect you may have black lung, you should visit a licensed physician or a Black Lung Clinic. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) oversees the Black Lung Clinic program for disabled coal miners throughout the country.
Compensation for Black Lung Disease
Workers who have black lung or other respiratory illnesses caused by their jobs may be eligible for various types of workers’ compensation benefits under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, including payment for medical expenses and lost wages. Families of workers who died from an occupational illness may receive death benefits, including a percentage of the deceased worker’s weekly wages and burial expenses.
Federal Benefits for Black Lung Victims
The Black Lung Benefits Act provides compensation to those who have been totally disabled by black lung, as well as certain family members of workers who died from the disease. Compensation may include medical benefits, as well as payment for lost wages. Benefits are provided to miners in situations where the worker’s former mining company either went out of business or cannot be identified.
The benefits are paid out of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, established by Congress in 1978. The fund was originally financed primarily by a tax on coal of approximately one dollar per ton. In 2008, the fund was more than $4 billion in debt despite Congressional re-authorization of the coal tax. The tax authorization expired in 2018 and was re-authorized at half the previous rate. The fund’s deficit is projected to reach $15 billion by 2050.
For workers to claim these benefits, they must undergo a complete pulmonary evaluation by a qualified heath care provider approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. The examination may include X-rays, arterial blood gas tests, and pulmonary function tests, as well as a physical examination. Certain requirements and restrictions must be met to be eligible for benefits.
In 2019, the basic monthly wage for a totally disabled miner or the surviving spouse of the miner was $669.30 per month. This may be increased to a maximum of $1,338.60 per month for claimants with three or more qualified dependents. Because the Black Lung Benefits Act links benefit rates to federal employee salary rates, benefit levels are usually adjusted annually in accordance with changes in the federal employee pay schedules.
What Employers Can Do to Prevent Black Lung
Black lung is entirely preventable. However, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), at least one out of every 10 workers who have mined, processed, or transported coal for more than 25 years will develop black lung. The rate is twice as high for workers in Appalachia. It is now mandatory for mine operators to measure the amount of coal dust in the air in real time. However, real time monitoring of silica dust in the air is not yet possible. NIOSH has developed a silica monitoring system that produces results at the end of a miner’s shift.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Attorneys at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. Represent Coal Miners in Black Lung Claims
If you have black lung or another illness caused by your job, contact a Philadelphia workers’ compensation attorney at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. Our skilled and experienced attorneys can help you receive the benefits to which you are entitled. For a free consultation, please complete our online contact form or call us at 888-PITT-LAW today.
Located in Philadelphia, Bensalem, Lansdowne, and Reading, we represent injured workers in Berks County, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, Philadelphia County, and throughout Pennsylvania, including those in the communities of Abington, Ambler, Ardmore, Bala Cynwyd, Bensalem, Clifton Heights, Crum Lynne, Darby, Downingtown, Doylestown, Drexel Hill, Essington, Folcroft, Glenolden, Haverford, Havertown, Holmes, Kutztown, Lansdowne, Media, Merion Station, Morton, Narberth, Norristown, Norwood, Philadelphia, Prospect Park, Quakertown, Reading, Roxborough, Sharon Hill, Upper Darby, West Chester, and Wynnewood.