A Coal Miner’s Health: Short Term Gains and Long Term loss

Photo by Nick Mullins

A worker performing pre-operational checks on a continuous miner.

Coal mining is dangerous work.

Spend any length of time talking with a group of underground coal miners and you are sure to hear “war stories” about close calls with severe injury or even death. Every aspect of the job requires a constant vigilance for potential hazards. Countless miners have been killed by collapses of the mine roof or coal ribs while many others have been killed when crushed by heavy machinery in confined spaces.

As a coal miner, I worried more about sudden death rather than the long term debilitating health effects related to mining. Whenever the subject did come up, it centered upon Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as “black lung.” I eventually realized there was a much bigger picture however, and CWP was only the tip of the iceberg.

Underground mining not only fills a miner’s lungs with dust, it wears out the body and can even cause cancer.

With ever increasing production quotas, coal mining has become faster paced during recent years. The rigorous work required in confined spaces leads to joint deterioration, especially within the lower back, knees, shoulders and neck.

Newer generation miners suffer from such injuries despite only a few years of working in the mines. Those who are financially bound to their jobs rely upon pain medications to continue working. As a result, prescription medication abuse within the coal industry has steadily risen over the past decade, a problem that has even spread throughout the surrounding communities.

“I can’t get on disability,” one young miner, wishing to keep his anonymity explained. “There is no way I can afford my house payments and support my family on social security checks. I have to do what is necessary to keep going an’ keep working.”

Miners must also face constant exposure to various chemicals in the mines. Ted Mullins, a retired electrician who worked in an underground coal mine/prep plant complex in eastern Kentucky, is now fighting an ongoing battle with leukemia.

“I sometimes wonder if a lot of the cancer me and many of my friends have been diagnosed with came from chemicals we were exposed to in and around the mines,” Mullins, who now lives in Lexington, Ky., said. He listed off several names of co-workers he knew–all of whom have have since died from cancer.

“Miners today don’t think about their health years down the road,” he said. “I’m just glad I retired union and have [United Mine Worker’s Association] retirement medical coverage. If I didn’t, there is no way I could afford to fight my leukemia.”

To make matters worse, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has lately examined the increased usage of diesel equipment in underground mining and the effects of exhaust on miners in confined spaces. A website published by NIOSH reveals potential links between diesel exhaust and cancer. According to the website, underground miners may be exposed to 100 times the amount of diesel exhaust as compared to the rest of the population.

While the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and state mining agencies have put various laws regarding diesel equipment in place, miners are left to wonder if it will be enough. “NIOSH cannot definitely determine that current diesel regulations will result in the elimination of all diesel health concerns,” stated Ed Blosser, Public Affairs Officer for NIOSH. “The reason for this uncertainty is that there is still incomplete information concerning the level of exposure to diesel emissions that may cause health effects.”

Anyone living within the coalfields will tell you that a coal miner who spends their life working in mines will be left with little health to enjoy retirement. A lot of miners make every effort to warn their children about following their footsteps into the mines, hoping the next generation will strive for a better education and avoid a similar fate.

As life would have it, many of those children become enticed by the high wages of coal mining as compared to other jobs in the coalfields. They look only at the short-term gains while ignoring the long-term losses.

As one of those young miners so eloquently put it, “You’ve got to die someday.”

Originally published in The Appalachian Voice where it was published in the Winter 2010 Edition. During my last months working at the mine I began thinking about many of these issues. After performing the research for this article I found those issues were worth more than just thinking about.

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10 thoughts on “A Coal Miner’s Health: Short Term Gains and Long Term loss

  1. I agree. What makes me angry is the same hard work and dedication is killing them and destroying their children's future. That's why so many people are trying to find alternative employment which will save a miner's health and help build a better future for their kids.

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  2. Nick, Thanks for sharing your perspectives on coal and health. I work with Kentucky Environmental Foundation in Berea and we recently released a report called, “Health Impact Assessment of Coal and Clean Energy Options in Kentucky.” You can find it on our web page at http://www.kyenvironmentalfoundation.org . It addresses some of the concerns you mentioned and continues along the entire life cycle of coal based energy from extraction to disposal of byproducts. We also dug as much research up as we could find on health impacts of renewable energy and energy efficiency, trying to make the argument that health should be a priority when we're considering our energy options.

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  3. I apologize for the belatedness of my reply. I read the “Health Impact Assessment of Coal and Clean Energy Options in Kentucky”. The information is disturbing to say the least. People must understand that renewable energies, while they may not be perfect, are as close to perfect as you can get when compared to the multitude of health issues caused by the mining, processing, and use of coal. Thank you for sharing this.

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  4. I live with injuries every day that may be attributed to being a coal miner but I'm thankful that I have a GOOD JOB and thankful that there are people who are willing to take a risk with there money and put me to work. Is coal mining a dangerous and dirty job you bet. But, let's be happy we can feed our families and have some special times without worrying about a job. Let's give thanks to the owners of these businesses. We need to be worrying about these useless tree hungers and there agenda which is to shut our livelihood down. Most of them are filthy rich people that don't know what it's like to have to work for a living won't us all to depend on the government to support us. These people are the real enemy we need to fight back and support those that are at the front lines for our jobs.

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  5. Define good job…. I'd encourage you to read a few more posts, such as The War on Coal: Coal History, Guess Who Wants Your Kids to Work in a Coal Mine?, and Everything's Better Outside of the Coalfields.

    It's sad to find that men are thankful for what the coal industry has done and continues to do to us.

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    • It’s also sad to hear another coal miner again stereotype a “tree hugger” as filthy rich when im sure he knows of very few “treehuggers” personally , if any. I am no tree hugger, nor a coal miner “anymore”. But around here some coalminers do appear much more ” filthy rich” than any other and its not because they work harder! I know this from experience. Its much harder to do many other types of work out here and pay the bills on a significantly less salary and have the worries and stress to go along with that because you can no longer afford to live the life you once afforded while in the mines. This is a life we chose to live and our families chose it with us so when your hurt and cant get any of that goverment help that people claim is so easy to get, its hard on the family as well to overcome. Then to thank the companies owners for taking a risk with their money. Trust me, their money is far more important to them than any of us. God forbid a coal miner ever come down with black lung or other illnesses or even get hurt on the job. Id love to think these things didn’t exist in coal mining but unfortunately they do. And when, for example, an unforseen accident does happens on the job and you find yourself injured and in pain each and every day from there on, you really see how “important” you are to that company. You will see that the all-mighty dollar, regardless the amount, outweighs your importance to the mine….We’re all just a number! And forget about how many years you devoted to the company, or how well of a job you felt you had done for them and how much you missed out with your family at home for your family at the mine. Once your gone, your forgotten, replaced, and to the owners, one less liability. Coal mining was at one point in my life a job I was happy with, a career. I was thankful to be able to provide for my family as well as I did in the coal industry. Let’s face it though, I don’t know of any companies any more that treat their employees like anything other than replaceable. Mines once treated us well. My opinion has changed over the years regarding this though. I witnessed them fight me with more money in their pockets than I’ll ever see over my accident. I felt there was no since in spending what little I had fighting this so I did what many others have done and gave up only to have to deal with this every day since then. I had no union or anyone else for that matter, supporting me. The main thing is that my family and I have made it since then and I have to say its a far better life with less money. Just being able to spend this time with my family and yes with a few less luxuries but I’m better regardless of any pain I deal with from day to day. I believe in giving thanks where its due. These owners, CEO, and such are not the ones to thank in my opinion. Everything I read anymore about the mining companies shows their “suffering” and I almost laugh saying that. They file bankruptcy after giving their high ups huge bonuses, then try to deny their retirees the benefits they have worked so hard for, and then take it in front of the courts seeking approval to once again give these hard working CEO and such MORE bonuses. This has got to be the most screwed up industry I’ve ever seen!

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  6. Its so sad that there are people like you who have no idea about coal mining and put their comments in. I am a coal miner and I know all the risk but I also know that what I'm doing is making your life better. How did you post that comment? All ya that's right by computer which is powered by electric which is provided by coal. So please before you ever post something make sure you know what your talking about. As for the kids you have to be able to put them through college so they can do better and how do you do that? Its by making the money to do it so the can learn about alternative energy.

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  7. Pingback: Coal Miner's Union Wins Big Victory For Retired Members - ABNT - African Business Network Technology

  8. Pingback: Mining, Diesel Particulate Matter, & Cancer | The Thoughtful Coal Miner

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