coal miner

“It’s an epidemic and clearly one of the worst industrial medicine disasters that’s ever been described… Thousands of cases of the most severe form of black lung. And we’re not done counting yet.”

— Scott Laney, epidemiologist, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, quoted by NPR.

A gut-wrenching expose about coal miners and black lung disease warrants a special position as Number 11 on my list of Top 10 Employee Wellness Stories of 2018.

NPR and Frontline recently introduced findings from a multi-year investigation, reviewing data going back 20 years.

It’s too much detail to share here, but to get up to speed, you can:

From the NPR story:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame…For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause PMF [progressive massive fibrosis], as they were happening. They knew that miners…were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t. “We failed,” said Celeste Monforton, a former mine safety regulator in the Clinton administration.

Danny Smith, of Kentucky, worked as a coal miner for twelve years and has PMF. Joshua Johnson, host of the 1A radio program, describes Mr. Smith’s illness:

His lung tissue is dying so fast, it peels off. Sometimes he coughs it up, a wet, dark gray crust with black streaks.

Adding fuel to the fire, a special fund created to assist black lung victims faces financial jeopardy:

Johnson, the 1A host, introduces 63-year-old Charles Shortridge from Virginia, who mined coal for almost 3 decades. His father and father-in-law both had black lung disease when they died, and his friend died from it last week. Mr. Shortridge tells of his love for mining. “It’s all we really knew,” he says. When Johnson asks what specifically he loved about mining, Mr. Shortridge replies:

I love to see the coal running over the conveyor chain into the cars. Mining that coal.

Miners have proudly honored, and risked their lives for, their long tradition of hard, selfless, productive work. Unfortunately, despite being a society obsessed with sacrificing ourselves in the name of hard work, we’ve failed to honor those who have done just that. We’ve forsaken them like a coal company abandoning a depleted mine.

For those of us in the wellness industry, as we debate the merits of fitness apps, health incentives, Fitbits, mindfulness programs, and financial wellness, we’d do well to pause and consider the plight of 2,000+ coal company employees and retirees coughing up lung tissue, as well as the thousands of others who face countless risks every day.


Pray when I’m dead and my ages shall roll,
That my body would blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home, 
And pity the miner a-digging my bones.

— Merle Travis, “Dark as a Dungeon”

(¯`·._) (¯`·._)