Many U.S. coal miners will receive free, confidential chest X-rays to detect work-related lung diseases, courtesy of a new pilot program announced today by the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
The pilot program, called the "Miners' Choice Health Screening," will initially offer free chest X-rays to about 20 percent of U.S. coal miners.
MSHA said the program is designed to ensure confidentiality, a concern that may have kept participation levels in the previous chest X-ray program low.
"We are hopeful that all miners, especially those who may not have participated before, will take part in the new pilot program," said David McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "Higher numbers of participating miners gives us a much clearer picture of the scope of respiratory problems among miners, which gives us a better direction on how to address the problems."
McAteer said the new program my replace the existing program that has suffered because of low participation.
"There may be a perception among many miners that, because the current program directly involves the mine operator arranging and paying for the X-rays, test results may somehow be used against them during the course of their employment," said McAteer. "We believe this new program will address this concern and more will see that it's in their best interest to participate."
The new pilot program will operate independently of the current program. Each year MSHA will designate approximately 20 percent of the more than 100,000 active coal miners in the nation to participate in the program.
Eligible participants this fiscal year would be coal miners working at operations whose mine identification numbers end with the digit zero or one. MSHA will notify each miner working at a selected mine of his or her eligibility for a free chest X-ray under the pilot program. The agency will pay the 70 participating X-ray facilities for all X-rays taken of eligible coal miners during the test period.
MSHA inspectors will give miners the name and location of all designated X-ray facilities nationwide. Miners will be able to take the free X-rays at any of the participating facilities, regardless of location.
Mine operators will not have access to any results of the chest X-rays on any miners. However, the industry has expressed support for the program. "A number of mine operators will allow miners time during work hours to take the X-rays and will allow the mobile X-ray units, which will be used in some areas, on their property," added McAteer.
MSHA moved to implement the pilot program primarily in response to a 1996 federal advisory committee chartered to make recommendations for eliminating black lung disease among mine workers. The committee recommended that, along with underground miners, surface miners should be checked for occurrences of work-related respiratory diseases.
Under the pilot program, all X-ray results will be sent to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH will then notify each tested miner, in writing, of individual X-ray findings. Those tested will be provided the results within 45 to 90 days.
MSHA will not receive individual results but only statistical information, and will inform the coal miner industry, miners' representatives, and other interested parties of statistical data obtained through the program.
"Once we can accurately determine the depth and scope of respiratory problems, such as black lung and silicosis among working miners, MSHA, as well as industry and labor, can better direct and concentrate resources at the sources of this health hazard and eliminate them," said McAteer.