By C.V. Moore
As southern West Virginia sees a resurgence of black lung disease, even among younger coal miners, several groups are coming together Thursday to provide free black lung benefits counseling services in Nicholas County, where a new Black Lung Association chapter recently formed.
“We’re coming together in Nicholas County to let active coal miners know they do need to keep track of their health and watch what their lungs are doing to see if they are developing black lung over time,” says Susie Criss, black lung program director at the New River Breathing Center in Scarbro.
“We just want to get the word out about what we can provide the coal miners and let them know we are on their side and make sure their health is good.”
From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the parking lot of the Country Inns and Suites in Summersville, a “Wellness Wagon” staffed with benefits counselors and spirometry technicians will provide free, confidential services to coal miners and others exposed to hazardous dust on the job in the Nicholas County area.
Staff from three area black lung clinics will assist coal miners with questions about filing for benefits, deadlines and baseline breathing tests. Spouses are welcome to stop by as well to pick up information.
West Virginia’s eight statewide black lung clinics were established in 1977 under the Black Lung Benefits Reform Act, and provide benefits counseling services, X-ray and breathing test services and general primary care.
If a patient does begin to show impairment, they offer help in filing state Workers’ Compensation claims or federal black lung benefits.
Black Lung Associations are groups of coal miners and supporters who advocate to help keep laws strong around black lung. The new Nicholas chapter will meet at the Summersville City Hall on Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m.
In the past, Criss says her organization has spread the word about their work by word of mouth, but that it is difficult to reach active coal miners.
“We have access to retired coal miners through UMWA meetings and Black Lung Association meetings, so we wanted to get in an area that has active coal miners, and Nicholas County has that,” she says.
Thursday’s counseling services are a joint effort from the New River Health Black Lung Program, Rainelle Medical Center Black Lung Program, and the Upper Kanawha Valley Medical Center Black Lung Program.
For more information, visit blacklungwv.org or call 304-469-2161.
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Criss has done this work for 20 years and says when she started, the disease was on the decline. Not so anymore, she says.
Data provided by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety shows a resurgence of Black Lung over the past 15 years, and points to southern West Virginia as one hot spot of that trend.
Another change is the age of affected workers, says Criss.
“It used to be that what we’ve seen here in the office was older coal miners with 20 or 30 years of experience underground, working on the face. But we’re seeing it in cases as young as 38 or 40 years old who haven’t worked as long,” she says.
Possible reasons for the change include longer hours, inadequate protection from dust and the necessity of cutting through rock, which increases the danger of developing silicosis.
Federal Black Lung Program benefits can be difficult to obtain, as they require a total disability. Workers who have the disease but who have not progressed to the point where they have become totally disabled, can be turned down.
But state benefits match the percent of disability from the disease, so a worker who is 10 percent disabled can get a monetary award of 10 percent and refile as the disease progresses.
One piece of the Affordable Care Act also provides relief to widows of miners with Black Lung. Under the law, widows can continue to receive benefits and the burden of proof falls back to the employer to prove that the Black Lung did not cause death.
“We were happy to get that,” says Criss. “I see so many widows come in that were just cut off from benefits that they were receiving. It’s a second assault as they just lost their husband and then their benefits too.”
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