Occupational Hazards: Dangerous Conditions in the US Mining Industry

Here in the United States, headlines have been blaring over the last few weeks about the 29 coal miners killed in West Virginia at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Even the President was outraged, and the public attention may result in a push to reform the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to give it some more regulatory teeth, although there are legitimate questions to be asked about how easy it will be to enact tougher regulations when there’s a revolving door between the mining industry and Congress. Massey Energy Company, which owned the mine, had a history of safety violations but regulators were powerless to do much about them.

52% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. The coal industry in the United States has been criticized for being highly corrupt, for engaging in horrific environmental practices such as mountaintop removal, and, of course, for significant safety violations which put worker health at risk. The mining industry has become more aggressive and more sophisticated to feed the demand for coal in the United States, resulting in longer hours for miners and much more occupational exposure to hazards.

Over 130,000 people work in coal mines in the United States so that we can run our refrigerators, turn our lights on, and, yes, type at our computers. Disasters like the incident at the Upper Big Branch Mine are awful, and they should not happen, and they would also be preventable if MSHA had more regulatory teeth.

But there’s another problem which affects coal miners in the United States, and it’s one which doesn’t get a lot of press. It kills an estimated 700-1,000 miners every year. In the 1970s, death rates from this problem started to decline, but in the 1990s, they rose again, a reflection of changing practices in the coal industry.

That problem is black lung.

Black lung is an occupational and fully preventable disease caused by inhaling coal dust. Miners are more likely to inhale coal dust now than ever before due to changes in mining techniques. Long shifts, increased production, and very deep mining all contribute to a rise in black lung rates. Black lung used to be observed primarily in older miners with a long work history, but today it is increasingly common in younger miners who have not been working in the mines for decades. This illustrates, starkly, that coal miners are inhaling more coal dust than ever before.

Also known as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or miner’s pneumoconiosis, black lung occurs as inhaled coal builds up in the lungs. The lungs cannot express the coal, and over time this leads to inflammation and scarring. Parts of the lung tissue may die because the trapped coal cuts off the blood supply to the lung. In the early stages, people with black lung experience shortness of breath and a recurrent cough which does not resolve. As the disease progresses, damage spreads to the heart and the miner can also develop autoimmune diseases.

Black lung does not kill right away. Numerous miners are disabled by this disease and in fact benefits are specifically made available by law to miners who have been disabled by black lung. There has also been a move to renegotiate the terms of those benefits to make them more comprehensive. The health insurance reform bill which recently passed in Congress included a clause which:

…reversed 1981 legislation that put the burden on a miner of 15 years or more to prove that his or her disability is caused by black lung, a collection of respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling dust. The new changes also automatically transfer benefits to spouses and other dependents after a miner dies — accepting the presumption that black lung contributed to the death of a miner of 15 years or more. (source)

These changes were resisted by the coal industry and the insurance industry, naturally.

There are two mechanisms for protecting miners from black lung. The first is the use of respirators to limit the amount of coal dust inhaled. The second is the use of monitors to track levels of coal dust in mines. When levels rise too high for respirators to provide protection because they clog the respirators, the monitors send an alert. The monitors are expensive, however, which has made mines slow to adopt them.

In the wake of this most recent disaster, some people have wondered where the Union was; surely, one of the functions of a union is to protect the health and safety of workers, right? I hope it comes as no surprise to learn that the coal industry is also anti-union. The Upper Big Branch Mine is a non-union mine. Not, I would note, by choice of the workers. The workers have voted for a union and were threatened by the CEO of Massey Energy until they backed down.

There are numerous other industries in the United States characterized by dangerous working conditions which lead to illness, disability, and death for their workers. Workers in these industries enjoy few protections. Meat packing plants, for example, are staffed heavily with undocumented workers who are afraid to file complaints for fear of being deported. Workers who do complain are simply fired and replaced with new ones.

Occupational health and safety are disability issues. Rights for workers is a social justice issue. People are injured, disabled, and killed every day in the United States by preventable working conditions and this primarily only attracts attention when mass casualties are involved.


  1. Massey Energy was also the company responsible in the case of the 2000 Kentucky coal sludge spill, which sent massive amounts of toxins into the environment – http://appalshop.org/sludge/about.php

  2. My great grandmother’s 2nd husband was killed by the company people in TN because he was trying to start a union in the 1930s. The issue with unions goes wayyyyyy back.