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What is the Federal Black Lung Program?

Many jobs have inherent dangers. We often hear about the risks that police officers, firefighters, loggers, fishermen and others face each day. But what about careers in which the dangers accumulate over time?

Coal miners, too, face hazards daily -- cave ins, poison gas, coal-dust explosions and more. But even more common among coal miners is black lung disease. In fact, the chronic respiratory ailment has hit a 25-year high in Appalachia. It affects nearly 20 percent of people who work in coal mines for 25 years or more. To combat this vocational epidemic, the federal government runs the Black Lung Program, providing benefits to workers who suffer from this disease and their survivors.

What is black lung disease?

Coal workers' pneumoconiosis – also known as CWP or black lung disease – is a respiratory illness caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Coal dust builds up in the lungs of miners and other people regularly exposed to coal, causing inflammation, fibrosis and, eventually, tissue death.

Symptoms of black lung disease include coughing – with or without mucus – shortness of breath, chest tightness and poor absorption of oxygen. People with black lung disease are at a higher risk of contracting rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis and other diseases that affect the lungs or heart.

Doctors diagnose black lung disease by looking at a patient’s history, conducting a physical exam and running tests that may include X-rays, CT scans and a bronchoscopy – a test in which a technician inserts a tube with a camera into the trachea to examine a patient’s airways.

While there is no cure for black lung disease, doctors can manage the symptoms. People with black lung disease need to quit smoking to avoid further lung deterioration, and they may get supplemental oxygen and inhalers to assist with breathing. In extreme cases, patients may need a lung transplant to prolong their lives.

Finding help

A 1973 act of Congress created the Black Lung Benefits act. People diagnosed and disable by black lung disease caused from working in coal mines are eligible for monthly monetary benefits and medical coverage through the Federal Black Lung Program. If black lung disease causes a person’s death, that person’s survivors may be eligible for benefits as well.

In 2019, payments begin at $669.30 per month and go up to $1,338.60 depending on the number of dependents the beneficiary has. Workers who have developed black lung disease may also be covered by workers’ compensation, their insurance or may be eligible for further compensation. An attorney can be helpful in exploring all the options available to those suffering with this crippling disease.

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