Hello! My name is Dennis Marion, and I am a student at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Biomedical Engineering. Today, we will look into the health and social issues surrounding the coal mining industry and COVID-19. First, let us address the elephant in the room; the coal mining industry has not been generous towards its miners as history has shown. Since the beginning, these miners have faced countless threats to their lives ranging from collapsing mineshafts, gas leaks, explosions, black lung, and now COVID-19.
These miners compete with various hazards to their daily lives and long-term wellbeing. One such issue that is most relevant today is the threat to these workers’ lungs if exposed to COVID-19. Currently, most miners already possess poor lung functionality due to long-term exposure to coal particles in those poorly ventilated shafts. Now with COVID-19, the risk has only grown. The mines serve to increase the virus’s infection rates, and the approach that these companies have made to reduce this threat has been weak at deterring the spread. Next, we will discuss the development resulting from the failure of regulatory programs designed to protect these workers, such as (EEOICP), more on that later. Lastly, we will cover the increase of the fatal lung disease cases known as Black Lung. Seeing these issues, it is evident that change is needed soon. Less we wish to view these miners’ already high mortality rates increase even more in the future. To begin looking into these problems, let us delve deeper into the issues revolving around the mines.
The conditions of these miners, even before COVID-19, were already set for creating massive infections of various illnesses overall. Based on an interview from Bobby Stevens from npr.org, he mined coal for 11 years before retiring due to his concern about these miners’ safety. Stevens says: “You can be on a section with 14 men. One guy gets sick, all 14 of the guys is going to get sick at one point in time with the same stuff that that other guy had.” His comment makes apparent the more significant issue at these mining companies and their neglect in resolving the blatant issue of finding a means to space out their miners in these tight spaces. Another problem rooted in these mines is the failure of actively reporting the number of COVID-19 cases occurring within these facilities. Later in the same interview Sydney Boles, a member of the Ohio Valley Resource, states that MISHA or the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration does not even have accurate data on how many miners are infected by COVID-19. All because of the optional nature of having safety precautions in place. Above all, making the safety guidelines proposed by MISHA mandatory and not optional is vital for success. Companies must also be held accountable for failing to report their COVID cases to MISHA. However, distancing and accurate reporting is not the only concern as there is another issue regarding health programs meant to provide compensation and protect these workers. That program is called Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program or (EEOICP) by its acronym. (Sood, Pollard, Suer, Vlahovich, Walker, 2020, pg. 165-168)
This ongoing issue is the active shutdown of this program, resulting in the lack of training and equipment for medical staff. According to the Journal of Rural Health, “Home health staff have been constrained by a lack of protective gear and training on its use, inadequate training on the care of potentially infected patients, physical and mental exhaustion, high staff turnover rates, and fear.” (2020, pgs. 165-168) This tells us that the program is in shambles due to the delay from COVID-19. This does not only impact quality healthcare, but it also hinders compensation payments as now the program no longer has the means to verify and ensure compensation for these miners, denying much needed financial resources for these workers to find treatment as well as to provide for their families for when they may pass away. The virus has not just disrupted the compensation program, but it has also discontinued the Pulmonary Function Test (PFT), which served as a means to test lung function. Because of the virus’s nature of spreading through droplets, it is riskier to test their lung function, which may prove fatal without this knowledge. My only suggestion to approach these issues is that compensation should be provided given the circumstances. Miners still need this if they are going to provide for their families in their currently elevated circumstances.
Finally, we can now talk about the main attraction, Black Lung. It is a disease that further fuels these miners’ mortality rate, especially considering this leaves them more at risk of death due to the coronavirus’s nature. Black lung is a disease that physically darkens the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath and persistent cough with possible right-sided heart failure and lung cancer growth due to long-term coal particulate exposure. Coal particles serve to damage the alveoli, which in combination with COVID and its damage to these cellular tissues, and you can see where this will lead. Looking at this risk, one would think that these companies are caring for their workers, yes? However, a study from Potera, Carol called “Black Lung Disease Resurges in Appalachian Coal Miners” states that: “The prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung disease, among miners in the United States has dramatically increased since 2000, especially in central Appalachia.” Black Lung cases have been a growing issue since even before COVID came into the picture. The same article also states that: “The prevalence of CWP in Appalachian miners is four times higher than the national average, and for one in 20 long-tenured miners, their CWP will progress to PMF.” ( Potera, 2019, pg. 14) This ratio is unacceptable and needs correcting by having breathing equipment given to the miners or improve the technologies filtering out the particles from the air in those mines. Though this technology may prove costly and may reduce miners in the workforce, again from this unfortunate layoff would be cleaner air for those still mining and negated exposure for those terminated. As a quote from Michael Hendryx’s “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost” puts it: “The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits.” (Hendryx, 2009, pg. 1)
In conclusion, the coal mining industry is in real need of intervention as in its current state; it is riskier than it needs to be. The cost to make a living should not require permanent health issues due to greedy companies. The issues involving these companies’ failure to adequately provide pulmonary testing and compensation, uphold MISHA’s health and safety guidelines, and effectively reduce their Black Lung development in their staff are harmful to the workers and cost-inefficient long run. As Hendryx puts it: “… the number of excess annual deaths in mining areas ranged from 1,736 to 2,889, and VSL costs continued to exceed the benefits of mining.” (2009, pg. 1) Ultimately, real change needs to occur in this industry as this can go beyond COVID but become a more significant problem all on its own.
Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this presentation.
Sood, A., Pollard, C., Suer, K. L., Vlahovich, K., & Walker, J. (2021). Caring for miners during the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The Journal of Rural Health, 37(1), 165–168. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/jrh.12444
CDC. (2020, Oct.) Mining topic: Respiratory
diseases. CDC; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hendryx, M., & Ahern, M. M. (2009). Mortality in Appalachian coal mining regions: The value of statistical life lost. Public Health Reports, 124(4), 541–550. https://doi.org/10.1177/003335490912400411
Potera, C. (2019). Black Lung Disease Resurges in Appalachian Coal Miners. AJN, American Journal of Nursing, 119(4), 14. doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000554534.63115.c4.
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