Black Lung Disease (Coal Miner's Pneumoconiosis)
What is Black Lung disease?
Long term exposure to coal dust and, more recently, silica in the coal dust can cause a medical condition called pneumoconiosis, also known as Black Lung Disease. In the recent past, there has been a resurgence of severe cases of coal mine related black lung disease for miners working in the coal fields of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. As noted in a recent documentary, the increase has caught some experts and regulators by surprise.
While workers in other occupations and people who live in urban areas are sometimes diagnosed with some form of black lung disease, the most numerous and severe cases appear in coal miners who have dedicated their working lives to extracting coal. Basically, in the course of their work miners inhale something called silica dust (which results from a relatively new form of mining and mining technique). Over the course of time, the silica leads to a chronic type of inflammation in the miner's lungs, the excess build-up of protective tissue in the lungs (fibrosis) and death of cells (necrosis).
Web MD offers helpful insights about how often Black Lung disease appears in coal miners, the symptoms of the disease and how the disease is diagnosed. Typically, Black Lung disease develops over the course of time. It is estimated that 16% of coal miners will experience some form of respiratory issue over the course of their career as a coal miner. Many coal miners experience
- Shortness of breath
- Cough, sometimes associated with black sputum
- Chest tightness
How is Black Lung disease diagnosed?
As noted in the Web MD article, if a coal miner presents with the above symptoms a doctor will recommend that the worker have a chest X-ray and/or CT Scan to determine if they can see any inflammation or other spots on the lungs. Doctors will also ask questions about the worker's medical history, including a history of tobacco use and other exposures. If inflammation or other signs of Black Lung disease are seen, the coal miner may undergo a pulmonary function test to determine how the worker's lungs are functioning.
How is Black Lung disease treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for black lung disease. Treatments recommended by physicians and other medical providers are often aimed at making the symptoms of the disease more tolerable to the coal miner. Treatments may include:
- Medications such as inhalers may be prescribed
- Oxygen provided by an oxygen tank may be prescribed to help make of for the lack of oxygen in the lungs
- If the coal miner smokes, doctors will urge the miner to quit smoking immediately
- Doctors may also recommend other forms of pulmonary rehabilitation to help the worker develop better breathing techniques and tolerances.
- In rare circumstances, a doctor may recommend a lung transplant.
Can I be compensated for having black lung disease if it is related to my work in Virginia?
The answer to this question is, yes. While the claims process, time limitations and what is needed to prove the claim can be complex, many workers diagnosed with Black Lung disease have been and can be compensated for the effects of the disease. Below we have set out a basic outline for a Coal Miner's pneumoconiosis claim in Virginia.
Are there important time limitations for Black Lung claims in Virginia?
Yes, you must give notice to your employer as soon as you receive a diagnosis of black lung disease. Virginia law is very strict on this point. Written notice must be given to your employer within 60 days of the diagnosis. We cannot overstate the importance of this time limitation. Separate and apart from the notice required to the employer, coal miners must also file a claim with the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission within 3 years of the diagnosis of the disease. Specifically, Virginia Law states:
Va. Code§ 65.2-406 -- Limitation upon claim; diseases covered by limitation.
- The right to compensation under this chapter shall be forever barred unless a claim is filed with the Commission within one of the following time periods:
- For coal miners' pneumoconiosis, three years after a diagnosis of the disease, as category 1/0 or greater as classified under the current International Labour Office Classification of Radiographs of the Pneumoconiosis, is first communicated to the employee or the legal representative of his estate or within five years from the date of the last injurious exposure in employment, whichever first occurs;
However, the three-year statute of limitation does not begin to run until the employer, once notified by the employee of the Black Lung diagnosis, gives the coal miner the following notice in the following form:
In the event a diagnosis of coal miners' pneumoconiosis (including black lung, silicosis, pneumoconiosis, coal workers' pneumoconiosis, rock dust, dust, dust on your lungs or terms of similar meaning) is communicated to you, you may have a workers' compensation claim. However, such claim may be lost if you do not file it with the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission within the time limit provided by law. You may find out what time limit applies to your claim by contacting the Workers' Compensation Commission. The fact that you are told that you have coal miners' pneumoconiosis which has not reached the compensable level under the guidelines of the Workers' Compensation Commission or that you are still able to work or are working does not stop the time from running or otherwise relieve you of your duty to file your claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission.
How are Black Lung claims compensated under the Virginia Workers Compensation Act?
- Wage Loss Benefits -- The temporary wage loss benefits that a coal miner diagnosed with Black Lung disease are the same as those that can be obtained in other work injury cases. Specifically, an injured worker can receive ⅔ of the worker's pre-injury average weekly wage up to 500 weeks. In theory, temporary partial benefits are available in the scenario where the disease prevents the worker from performing the miner's pre-injury work but the miner finds other work that is less than the pre-injury average weekly wage. However, coal miner's with severe forms of this disease find it almost impossible to transition to other work.
- Medical Benefits -- Coal miners with Black Lung disease can claim payment for medical treatment including diagnostic tests, therapy, and functional testing. Medical benefits for coal miners are the same as those available to other injured workers in Virginia.
- Permanent Partial Disability Benefits -- Coal miners may be entitled to a type of benefit not available to other injured workers. Basically, the Commission will review the medical evidence to determine if the disease is at the first, second or third stage. Stages refer to the severity of the disease. Here is how permanent partial disability benefits are calculated:
First Stage -- A coal miner is entitled to 50 weeks of benefits if the disease is found to be in the first stage. This means the coal miner, regardless of ability to work will receive 50 weeks of compensation.
Second Stage -- A coal miner is entitled to 100 weeks of benefits if the disease is found to be in the second stage. This means the coal miner, regardless of ability to work will receive 100 weeks of compensation.
Third Stage -- A coal miner is entitled to 300 weeks of benefits if the disease is found to be in the third stage. This means the coal miner, regardless of ability to work will receive 300 weeks of compensation.
- Vocational Rehabilitation Benefits -- Like all other workers compensation injuries, coal miners can receive payment for retraining and educational benefits under certain circumstances.
- Death Benefits -- If a coal miner dies as a result of black lung disease in some cases survivor's exist that can receive weekly benefits.
- Permanent Total Disability Benefits -- In rare and severe circumstances a coal miner can receive weekly benefits permanently if the fibrosis is severe and progressive and functional testing indicates that the worker cannot work.
Finally, some coal miners and coal mine companies work out a lump sum settlement agreement. This is designed to pay the coal miner, in one lump sum, for all of the benefits listed above. Our law firm has handled hundreds, if not thousands of work injury claims. Please do not hesitate to contact our firm to assist you with your Black Lung (coal miner's pneumoconiosis) claim.