Whitesburg KY

Miners afraid they’ll lose jobs if screened for black lung disease

Despite free government programs, only about 16 percent of Kentucky miners get screened for black lung – about half the national average for coal-mining states.

Many miners avoid screenings out of fear of losing their jobs, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported this week.

Miners must share their blacklung diagnosis with their bosses almost immediately if they want to receive state benefits. And if miners are found to have black lung, there’s often no safe place for them to work in a mine. That leaves many worried that their employers would find reasons to let them go.

The results have proven deadly.

Black lung death rates in Kentucky rose 38 percent in the six years ending in 2004, even as they dropped in other major coal-mining states, according to the newspaper.

The black lung deaths, though deemed preventable by federal officials,

Among Kentucky miners getting chest X-rays last year, the number of black lung cases was three to five times higher than expected.

Coal companies have a significant hand in the screening process. A federal program requires that miners be offered screenings at various times, but the bills are sent to employers, allowing them to find out who has been screened.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said mine operators support screening for black lung. Well-run companies don’t fire or demote employees for having the disease, he said, and only fight unjust benefit claims.

He also said the employees need to take matters into their own hands.

“If they find out they’re starting to get it,” he said, “they need to get out of this industry.”

However, that places miners in a position of choosing health over income in a region where mining is one of the highest-paying jobs.

“There’s a good basis for fearing that companies know you have black lung,” said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate.

It’s easier to fire coal miners in eastern Kentucky, where nearly all mines are nonunion, he said.

Quincy Cook, a recently retired miner, got confirmation he had the disease only when he was ready to quit the mines.

“I knew that I had black lung” for years,” said Cook, of Bevinsville. “But I didn’t want to go (get screened) because I was afraid.”

Roy Hamilton, a longtime miner with emphysema, said he probably also has the disease.

But rather than risk a $50,000- a-year salary, he decided to keep his health concerns from his bosses and get a new job in the mining industry where he spends most of his time above ground.

“Most of your miners that are working do not come in,” said Anthony Warlick, program coordinator for Respiratory Clinics of Eastern Kentucky. “They’re in a tough position because they don’t want to lose their jobs. People have great distrust for the mines.”

Caylor said miners need not fear getting screening X-rays.

“It’s a psychological reason, maybe,” he said, “but not a valid reason.”

Davitt McAteer, former director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said he believes miners make a conscious choice to stay where they are.

“The high-paying jobs are the high-dust jobs, and the latency period (for black lung) is long,” he said.

Donald Slone of Knott County, 54, is one of the few Kentucky miners who did get screened and transferred to a less-dusty job.

After years of working underground, he got an X-ray in 2000 showing early black-lung disease. He started doing maintenance on the surface for International Coal Group before leaving the mines in February.

“I appreciate them doing that,” he said of his bosses.

– The Associated Press

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