Coal mining is a significant part of Colorado's economy. More than 2,500 Coloradans work as coal miners, and thousands more work in support roles. Unfortunately, many of these workers face serious health risks every time they go on the job.
A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that cases of black lung disease among coal miners have doubled within the last decade. While the Appalachian region has fared worst, the trend is occurring nationwide.
A separate analysis performed by the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio found that federal regulators and mining industry leaders have been aware for over two decades that coal miners were breathing in excessive amounts of coal dust, which causes the disease. CPI and NPR also discovered that the regulatory system for controlling coal mine dust is weak and fraught with inaccurate - and sometimes even fraudulent - reporting.
The disease used to be thought of as a problem that mostly affected the older population. Increasingly, though, it is being seen in young and middle-age miners. In fact, the problem has become so severe than one NIOSH epidemiologist has gone so far as to call it "a public health epidemic."
The problem is compounded by longer working hours for miners. The average coal miner now works about 11 hours per week longer than miners in the 1970s or 1980s. This equates to an additional 600 hours of coal dust exposure each year. In addition, because outputs are larger, the total volume of dust to which miners are exposed is also higher.
Coal miners work hard so that the rest of us can have access to the energy we need. Like all workers, they deserve the chance to feel safe on the job.
Source: WABE, "As Mine Protections Fail, Black Lung Cases Surge," Howard Berkes, July 9, 2012.
To learn more about workers' rights after developing black lung disease or other chronic work-related health problems, please see our page on occupational diseases.