Gone but Not Forgotten: BJC Remembers the Fallen Workers from the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster

On April 4, 2010, 29 coal miners working in the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in an explosion. This tragic disaster turned out to be the worst coal mining accident in four decades.

An independent investigation found that the coal company that operated the mine was directly responsible for the blast. The company was operating the mine in a horribly illegal manner, and they were issued 369 citations for flagrant safety violations that contributed to the explosion.

On the 11-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, we at Bailey, Javins, and Carter honor the miners who lost their lives that day. Each day, tens of thousands of coal miners go to work in inherently dangerous conditions in order to provide for their families. At the very least, their employers have a duty to take all reasonable measures necessary to ensure a safe work environment. Had the coal company lived up to their duty to protect their workers, this disaster would not have occurred.

Our firm was privileged to represent several of the families of the fallen workers from the Upper Big Branch disaster, and we took a lead role by recovering multiple times more than the $3 million per family the coal company was offering. We know that no amount of money can replace those workers who were lost because of this disaster, but by holding the coal company and others like them fully accountable when they engage in such egregious conduct, we can help ensure that West Virginia employers finally start putting the safety of their workers ahead of their bottom line.

Reprinted from Bailey Javins & Carter, LC

Coal Miners – You Should Know Your Rights

Those who work in dangerous conditions are generally well rewarded. But coal miners, who face a variety of hazards daily, may not get the care and compensation they deserve when they become injured or are diagnosed with a work-related illness.

As a coal miner, The 1977 Mine Act (as amended by the 2006 MINER Act) and other state and federal laws afford you a variety of rights to keep you safe in the workplace, provide you with the compensation you need and deserve if you’ve been harmed, and protect your position under certain circumstances.

Your Rights Concerning Mine Inspections

You have the right to request that the U.S. Mining Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) inspect your mine if you believe that there is imminent danger, a hazardous condition, or a violation of the Mine Act.

You can call the MHSA’s hotline at 1-800-746-1533 or use the agency’s online complaint system. You or your representative also have the right to participate in inspections and receive a copy of any mine inspection reports or orders issued.

Your Health and Safety Protection Rights

If you are a miner that has been hurt on the job or exposed to chemical hazards, you have the right information about hazards in your workplace. Employers must furnish first aid and appropriate medical treatment after an injury or the diagnosis of a work-related illness.

Black lung is one of the most serious occupational illnesses related to mining. If you are a coal miner, your employer must provide you with periodic health examinations that include symptom assessment, chest x-rays, spirometry, and your occupational history.

Your Rights Related to Standards and Regulations

As a miner, you have a right to the most recent information related to updated or changed standards and regulations in your industry. The Mine Act requires that MSHA publish all proposed regulations or health and safety standards. You can also comment or petition to challenge a new standard within 60 days of its publish date.

Your Rights Concerning Records, Maps, and Emergency Planning

The safety of miners often depends on the quality of the information they are provided about their environment. The Mine Act gives you the right to inspect the maps of any underground mines in which you work as well as records related to ventilation and roof control plans. You also have the right to access and review your company’s mine emergency response plan, which MSHA reviews twice annually.

Your Transfer Rights if Diagnosed with Black Lung Disease

If any medical examination or x-ray is positive for black lung disease, the MSHA provides that you may have transfer rights. Specifically, your employer may be required to provide you with work that has less exposure to dust at the same rate of pay as your prior position.

Your Right to Health and Safety Training

You have the right to health and safety training if you engage in mining operations or work in a mine. It doesn’t matter whether you are an employee of the mining company or an independent contractor.

If you work in a mine and believe that you don’t have the required health and safety training, you can withdraw yourself from duty.

Your Right to Avoid Employer Retaliation

If you are a miner, an applicant for employment, or a representative of miners, you have the right to be protected against discrimination when you exercise your rights under the Mine Act. If you exercise any of your rights under good faith, some of the discriminatory and retaliatory conduct that employers may not exhibit include:

  • Firing you
  • Demoting you
  • Reducing your hours, pay, bonuses, or vacation time
  • Threatening you
  • Transferring you to a less desirable position
  • Interfering with the exercise of your lawful rights

If any of these things have happened to you, you have just 60 days to file a discrimination complaint in most cases.

Your Right to Full and Fair Compensation

If you have been injured or become ill in the course of your employment as a miner, you have many rights. You should be treated fairly by getting access to quality medical care, wage replacement, and other benefits that will allow you to continue meeting your obligations as you focus on your recovery. A qualified mine accident lawyer can help protect your rights and ensure you are getting the maximum compensation available.

Protecting Coal Miners’ Rights and Fighting for Justice

Thousands of people continue to work in the coal mines that support this nation’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, many of the companies that employ them still don’t respect their rights and take care of them when an injury or illness occurs.

If you or someone you love has been hurt in a coal mining accident, been diagnosed with an occupational illness, or been the victim of retaliation, contact Bailey Javins & Carter at (304) 932-4639 or reach out to us online. Our dedicated and experienced mine accident attorneys will review your situation, outline your options, and fight aggressively to safeguard your right to full and fair compensation.

Mining Health Safety

The mining industry has a unique history and comes with its own set of challenges. When workers are tasked with pulling material from the ground that will fuel a nation, there’s risk involved, and some of the health risks to miners can be quite serious.

But mining is also a highly regulated industry that has the benefit of various safety protocols and strict legislation that is meant to keep workers and communities safe. In fact, the fatality rate in the industry has dropped over time.

7 Common Mining Health Safety Risks for Miner Protection

Even though mining companies have an obligation to follow health and safety protocols, some do a better job at this than others. Workers are the last line of defense when it comes to their own safety and wellbeing. There are several risks that mining workers can watch out for in this industry to reduce the chances of a serious injury or a workplace fatality.

  1. Coal Dust

One of the most common health concerns for miners is the inhalation of coal dust. When this happens repeatedly, it is the cause of what is known as “black lung” or “miner’s lung.”

Black lung is a type of occupational disease in the pneumoconiosis group, which can vary in severity. Mining companies are highly regulated with respect to preventing this, but cases still occur.

Workers should ensure they are using the proper respiratory protection and dust control protection and insist on training and medical screening for early detection.

  1. Noise

Mines are noisy environments with heavy machinery and constant drilling. The potential for hearing damage is significant among miners.

Mining companies should evaluate conditions to reduce noise exposure whenever possible. Workers should also use proper hearing protection and should be trained in its use.

  1. Thermal Stress

Another common hazard that mine workers face is thermal – or heat – stress. Mining environments can be humid and hot, causing severe thermal stress in workers.

When a person is overexposed to humidity and heat, their body can become distressed and fatigued. This can lead to heatstroke and other serious problems like respiratory distress.

Whenever possible, mining companies should try to control the environment so that it limits a worker’s exposure to prolonged heat. Workers should understand how to avoid, recognize, and treat thermal stress before it becomes something more serious.

  1. Chemical Hazards

Miners are also exposed to harmful and dangerous chemicals in their work. Every chemical used in a mine has a unique list of hazards and should be handled appropriately to avoid exposure and injury.

Mining companies should develop standard operating procedures that address the safe handling of chemicals, their proper disposal, and the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by workers.

A safe workplace will also have proper ventilation to minimize exposure and a spill response plan to address accidents.

  1. UV Exposure

For miners that work in open pits, there is a significant risk of over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. This puts workers at a higher risk of skin cancer as well as potential vision damage.

Too much UV exposure can also lead to dehydration, nausea, and headaches in the short-term. Employers and workers should understand the risks of high UV exposure as well as create protocols to protect miners from this hazard.

  1. Whole Body Vibration

Workers that continually operate heavy machinery have a greater chance of developing a physical condition related to whole body vibration (WBV). WBV can happen from sitting on or standing next to large machines.

Symptoms of WBV include digestive problems, visual impairment, musculoskeletal disorders, and reproductive damage in females. Workers should reduce their exposure to constantly-running machinery whenever possible.

  1. Musculoskeletal Disorders

A WBV can cause a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), but other workplace hazards can also cause this condition. MSDs are considered any problems affecting your muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels.

A mine worker can trip and fall, become injured due to heavy lifting, or suffer injuries from exertion over time. Employees should receive training on avoiding and recognizing MSDs in the workplace.

Were You or a Loved One Injured in a Mining Accident?

While mining safety is vital to the health and wellbeing of coal workers, accidents still happen, and people still become gravely ill. The coal mining industry has a responsibility to protect and safeguard its workers, but it often falls far short of its obligations.

If you or someone you love has been injured, become ill, or was killed due to conditions in a mine, you may have the right to compensation. Contact Bailey Javins & Carter at (304) 932-4639 or reach out to us online. Our experienced mine accident injury attorneys will explain your options and fight for the damages you need and deserve.

U.S. Coal Industry Not Doing Enough to Fight Black Lung Disease: Report

Black lung disease has been on the rise in recent years. This deadly disease that primarily effects coal workers was a major epidemic in the 1970s, but by the end of the 1990s, it had almost been wiped out (largely due to new laws and regulations). Since 2000, black lung disease has come back with a vengeance, and a new report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says that a “fundamental shift” is required on the part of the coal industry to address this rapidly growing problem.

What is Black Lung Disease?

Black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, results from continuous exposure to coal dust over an extended period of time. This type of exposure commonly occurs when coal miners are working underground. It can also occur during the process of strip mining (mining just below the earth’s surface) and above ground while the coal is being processed.

Black lung disease starts when the body’s immune system attempts to get rid of the small particles of coal dust that are trapped in the lungs. As the scavenger white blood cells become overwhelmed, they release enzymes that inflict damage on the lungs, creating scar tissue. Over time, the scar tissue builds up, shrinking the volume of the lungs and inflicting further damage on the surrounding tissue.

The mildest form of pneumoconiosis is known as anthracnosis. This condition is relatively minor and common among urban dwellers because of air pollution. Ongoing exposure to high levels of coal dust for an extended period of time leads to more severe forms of the condition, such as simple coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, and complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as progressive massive fibrosis).

In its early stages, black lung disease can be difficult to identify. During the initial stages, it is not uncommon to have no symptoms at all. As the condition progresses, sufferers may start to develop chronic cough, shortness of breath, and similar symptoms. To make matters worse, other conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis often develop in conjunction with the disease.

As coal dust exposure continues and the condition progresses to complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, sufferers find it increasingly difficult to breathe and may eventually experience respiratory and/or heart failure. At this stage of the condition, the only cure is a lung transplant, but the problem is these transplants are only given to coal workers who are healthy enough to qualify.

Largest Cluster of Severe Black Lung Disease Cases Ever Identified

Prior to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, a research letter published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) identified and confirmed 416 cases of progressive massive fibrosis (complicated black lung disease) in three clinics across central Appalachia during a four-year period from 2013 to 2017.

Scott Laney, an epidemiologist who was involved in the study, called this, “the largest cluster of progressive massive fibrosis ever reported in the scientific literature”. This is a stunning report considering that progressive massive fibrosis had been nearly wiped out by the end of the last century.

Sadly, the figures reported in the JAMA study vastly understate the scope of the problem we are now facing. Mr. Laney went on to say, “even with this number, which is substantial and unacceptable, it’s still an underestimate.” National Public Radio conducted its own investigation that identified nearly 2,000 cases of complicated black lung disease across Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

In addition to the mind-blowing number of complicated black lung disease cases across Appalachia, the JAMA study and NPR investigation uncovered another highly disturbing fact; coal workers are developing progressive massive fibrosis at younger ages than in the past, and after fewer years working in the mines.

In the past, progressive massive fibrosis typically affected miners who were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. The latest cluster of cases shows an increasing number of younger miners being affected. Miners in their 50s, 40s, and even 30s are now developing the most severe form of black lung disease. The JAMA study reports that a “high proportion” of complicated black lung disease sufferers they identified had worked in the mines for less than two decades.

NPR believes that one of the major reasons for the massive spike in complicated black lung disease is longer work shifts in the mines. In an effort to increase efficiencies, many mining companies have laid off workers and asked those who remain to put in longer hours. NPR’s investigation also points to the machinery required for the mining of thinner coal seams. This type of mining produces silica dust, which is far more toxic than coal dust.

Regulations are Not Enough to Fight Black Lung Disease, According to Latest Report

In 2014, the federal government implemented new regulations on the mining industry designed to help combat the sharp rise in black lung disease. While mining companies have been mostly in compliance with these regulations, it has not been enough to effectively fight the disease. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report says that mining companies need to be much more proactive to protect the workers who are exposed to the coal dust and other hazards they face on a daily basis.

The report calls for a comprehensive approach to combat black lung disease that includes implementation of enhanced monitoring technologies and additional research in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of what is causing this epidemic.

“Determining the causes of that increase and eliminating occupational lung disease in coal miners is a complex scientific, engineering, medical, regulatory, social, political, economic and legal problem,” the report says.

The report recommends several actions that should be taken to address the black lung disease problem, such as:

  • Better miner participation in voluntary medical surveillance (for early disease detection);
  • Better miner education on the risks and hazards of coal mine dust diseases;
  • Better training to ensure that miners know how to use continuous personal dust monitors (CPDMs) properly;
  • Improving CPDMs by reducing their weight and lowering their cost;
  • The development of a real-time crystalline silica monitor;
  • A comprehensive investigation into the challenges mining companies face in implementing a “beyond compliance approach to monitoring”;
  • A comprehensive research and development effort to address important information gaps regarding sampling and monitoring.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It is abundantly clear that we have a black lung disease epidemic on our hands. And the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report rightly points out that this epidemic is complex and involves countless factors that reach into numerous areas of our society. Underneath all the complexities, however, there are 50,000 coal workers whose lives hang in the balance.

These men and women are far more than just subjects of “research and monitoring”. They are individuals with hopes and dreams of a better life, and many have families who depend on their paycheck to put food on the table. Hopefully, the coal mining industry will take this report to heart and finally get serious about protecting their most precious resource; their workers.

If you or a loved one has been injured or killed as a result of complications resulting from black lung disease, contact Bailey Javins & Carter at (304) 932-4639 or through our website contact form. The experienced mine accident injury attorneys at Bailey Javins & Carter will work diligently to make sure you receive the damages you deserve.

For Top Hospital, Tough Questions About Black Lung and Money

Coal companies have paid millions of dollars to Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions over the last decade for medical opinions that have been used to deny hundreds of ailing mine workers meager black lung benefits, a yearlong investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity found.

“It is a total, national disgrace,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., of the findings. “The deck is stacked in theory and in practice against coal miners, men and women, and it is tragic.”

The head of the Hopkins unit that interprets X-rays in black lung cases, Dr. Paul Wheeler, found not a single case of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion, a review by ABC News and the Center found. In recent court testimony, Wheeler said the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung, a finding that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits under a special federal program, was in “the 1970’s or the early 80’s.”

“That’s my opinion, and I have a perfect right to my opinion,” Wheeler told ABC News in a lengthy interview in which he defended his track record. For his work, coal companies pay Hopkins $750 for each X-ray he reads for black lung, about ten times the amount miners typically pay their doctors.

Hopkins said it has no reason to doubt Wheeler’s findings, calling him “an established radiologist in good standing in his field.”

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‘Diabolical’: Black lung is back

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Coal miners’ pneumoconiosis was supposed to be gone by now. Years of suffering led to a 1969 law requiring mining companies to control airborne dust inside mines. Safety requirements would prevent exposure to deadly levels of coal dust that literally blacken workers’ lungs and leave them gasping painfully for air.

So, why have cases of black lung been increasing? Why has the rate of the most severe, fast-progressing type of black lung tripled in recent years? Why is the disease showing up in younger miners than in the past, with the worst rates in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and western Virginia?

Recent reports by the Center for Public Integrity, National Public Radio and The Charleston Gazette clearly show why.

Limits on dust in mines are too low, rules are not always enforced, and the monitoring system was made for cheating. Upper Big Branch miners, for example, told investigators they were instructed not to go about their regular duties when wearing devices designed to take air samples, but avoid dusty areas. Other miners described efforts to trick inspectors and to defeat the purpose of dust monitoring.

Before the 1969 law, almost half of miners who worked at least 25 years developed black lung. After the law, disease rates dropped. But since the late 1990s, black lung has rebounded. Of 24 autopsies after the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, 17 showed signs of black lung. Some had been mining as few as 10 years. The victims ranged in age from 25 to 61.

Newer conditions contribute to the problem, too. As miners blast through more and more rock to get to coal seams, miners face different kinds of dust, including silica, which is even more potent at ruining human lungs than coal dust. While black lung was formerly considered a threat to underground miners, surface mine workers are getting it now.

Miners have been breathing too much dust for years. Companies, unions, lawmakers and regulators all know it. But coal operators get pass after pass, letting them avoid fixing problems. Efforts to toughen dust limits and regulation get blocked, either at the urging of mine companies or unions, for different reasons.

Another round of safeguards are under consideration at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. It is past time to update these rules, so why are Republicans in Congress blocking them? Will West Virginia Republicans Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley urge their colleagues to stop standing in the way of miners’ health?

As coal dust fills delicate tissues of the lungs, the organ becomes scarred, shriveled and black. Miners with black lung struggle to do routine tasks and eventually suffocate. Dr. Edward Petsonk of WVU compared dying of black lung to having a screw slowly tightened across your throat. “It is really almost a diabolical torture,” he said.

And as the late 20th-century experience demonstrates, it does not have to happen, unless America chooses it.

Reprinted from WV Gazette

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, April 5, 2010

Two years ago this afternoon, a horrific explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

Twenty-nine coal miners died and two others were injured.

For many of us, the 2nd anniversary is a time to revisit the disaster, to ask questions about whether enough has been done to prevent another one. All too soon, it will be just another date marked on the long, deadly calendar of this nation’s shameful record of mine explosions, fires and other disasters.

To those who lost loved ones, April 5 will forever be the day that their husband died, the day they became an orphan, the day they lost their son or their best friend. Here’s the list of the miners that so needlessly died that day in the spring of 2010:

Carl Calvin Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Gregory Steven Brock

Kenneth Allan Chapman

Robert E. Clark

Cory Thomas Davis

Charles Timothy Davis

Michael Lee Elswick

William Ildon Griffith

Steven Harrah

Edward Dean Jones

Richard K. Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Lee Maynor

Nicholas Darrell McCroskey

James E. “Eddie” Mooney

Adam Keith Morgan

Rex L. Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard D. Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel R. Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Dale Skeens

Benny Ray Willingham

Ricky Workman

Reprinted from WV Gazette

FOCM and National Black Lung Association in West Virginia

FOCM has launched an initiative to assist the National Black Lung Association in WV, with all proceeds from FOCM shirts dedicated to the organization.

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