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Coal Workers at Small Mines More Likely to Get Black Lung Disease, Study Finds

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A new study by the federal government has confirmed what’s been known anecdotally for years: coal miners working in small mines are more likely to get black lung disease. The data underscores the fact that current dust control measures aren’t adequate to protect coal miners.The study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—or NIOSH—analyzed data from more than 3700 coal miners between 2005 and 2012.Researchers found that miners who worked in mines with fewer than 50 employees were more likely to have both black lung disease and abnormal lung function. This is even though nearly all of the subjects have worked under modern federal dust regulations.Wes Addington, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, says some small operators run safe mines. But:“Some of the worst scofflaws in the coal industry are small operators in Eastern Kentucky, and that’s been the case for decades, so that doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said.Addington says he's especially troubled by rates of the most severe form of black lung disease that are more than twice as high among miners in small mines.“That tells us that either the dust regulation wasn’t low enough to begin with, which is what the data shows, or in conjunction with that, operators weren’t complying,” he said. “But under no circumstances should we be seeing such high rates of miners developing complicated pneumoconiosis.”Miners in Appalachia have experienced a resurgence of black lung disease over the past few years. New, stricter dust regulations aimed at curbing rising black lung rateswent into effect last week, but many components will be phased in over the next two years.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.