Random (but not really)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Continued Injustuce for Coal Miners

I posted this on Facebook, but I’d really like to address it more thoroughly.

I heard about this initially on the WV Public Radio, which addressed a slightly different issue, “lawyers with the Jackson Kelly law firm submitted only favorable evidence in court.

But this article, on the doctors used most frequently by coal companies to deny claims, is completely heart-breaking.

Johns Hopkins medical unit rarely finds black lung, helping coal industry defeat miners’ claims

The article is long, but well worth reading. However, if you don’t want to read it, take note of this:

“It breaks my heart,” he said. “This man has been victimized twice — once by the conditions that allowed him to get this disease and again by a benefits system that failed him.”

For 40 years, doctors from Johns Hopkins have been reading x-rays of coal miners lungs. And instead of finding evidence of black lung, they note other causes.

Where other doctors saw black lung, Wheeler often saw evidence of another disease, most commonly tuberculosis or histoplasmosis — an illness caused by a fungus in bird and bat droppings. This was particularly true in cases involving the most serious form of the disease. In two-thirds of cases in which other doctors found complicated black lung, Wheeler attributed the masses in miners’ lungs to TB, the fungal infection or a similar disease.

You read that correctly. When looking at films of the lungs of coal miners, this doctor sees a fungal infection caused by bat droppings.

That in and of itself is horrifying, but even worse is this:

(T)issue samples from miners’ lungs have proven Wheeler wrong again and again.

When they do tissue samples (which can be dangerous to the patient, which is why radiology is the preferred method of diagnosis) the cause of the disease is usually determined to be black lung.

But as I said, these biopsies are not the recommend method of diagnosis, so what happens is this:

Sometimes miners had to die to prove they had black lung.

Then the widow or other family members receive death benefits.

Cold comfort for those who watched their loved ones slowly suffocate, and were told despite years in the mines, the cause of the disease wasn’t black lung, and they didn’t deserve support and benefits from the coal companies.

But here’s what royally pissed me off.

This man, sitting in his clean office, miles from the mines, far removed from these men struggling with every breath, believes the incidence and prevalence of black lung should be low, solely because he believes the law put an end to coal dust in mines.

A pair of assumptions shapes Wheeler’s views in ways that some judges and government officials have found troubling.

In reaching his conclusions about the cause of the large masses in Stacy’s lungs, Wheeler drew upon beliefs that pervade his opinions: Improved conditions in mines should make complicated black lung rare; whereas, histoplasmosis is endemic in coal mining areas.

In case after case, Wheeler has said complicated black lung was found primarily in “drillers working unprotected during and prior to World War II.”

This is the part where anyone who grew up in West Virginia is completely incredulous.

A law was put in place to regulate coal dust, ipso facto miners don’t have black lung.

If you think that’s ridiculous, let me tell you, it’s far worse than you think.

You see, coal companies regular falsify the dust readings in their mines.

(C)heating on dust tests is common, and… many miners help operators falsify the tests to protect their jobs.

Two dozen former mine owners or managers acknowledged that they had falsified tests.

Despite laws, hundreds are killed by black lung

[An important aside: “Dust tests tend to be taken more accurately at union mines than at non-union mines.”]

(The Labor Department) received 4,710 faked samples from 847 coal mines across the country, or 40 percent of the mines that the Government is charged with sampling.

U.S. Fines 500 Mine Companies for False Air Tests

Let me sum it up like this: the doctor the coal companies turn to because he provides diagnoses that allow them to deny black-lung claims believes that mines are dust free.

Yet for decades, coal companies have been falsifying the dust test that are supposed to show they are keeping the amount of dust in the air at legal limits.

Right now, I want more than anything else, for this doctor to work at coal mines, breathing the air miners have to breathe. Knowing supervisors are falsifying dust tests, but knowing he can’t say anything about it, or he’ll lose his job. And for him to know he can’t lose his job, because there are no other decent jobs to be had.

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