The "Miners'' Choice Health Screening," a voluntary, pilot program initiated to check for respiratory disease in U.S. coal miners, has been a deemed as a success in the first six months of operation, according to J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.
The pilot program, which provides free, confidential chest X-rays to certain working coal miners to detect evidence of black lung disease, began last fall and has been offered to 20 percent of miners nationwide in 13 coal-mining states. Nearly 70 percent of eligible coal miners, excluding those in Kentucky, have taken the X-rays offered by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
"The response to the pilot program has been better than we anticipated," McAteer said. "More than a thousand miners in Alabama were eligible, and we''re ecstatic that 89 percent of them participated. Even in Kentucky, where participation rates in the old program were about 8 percent to 10 percent, we''ve managed to more than double that rate so far, and we still have more than three months of time remaining to get other eligible miners tested."
Coal miners eligible for the X-rays are contacted by MSHA and informed of participating medical facilities where the X-rays may be taken. Retired miners or nonworking miners are not eligible. MSHA pays for all of the X-rays under the pilot program.
All X-rays are sent to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which coordinates test readings and notifies each tested miner of individual results. MSHA only receives statistical information concerning test results, which are examined to determined the extent of black lung disease.
"Miners also need to understand that a ''positive'' test result showing evidence of black lung is ''not the end of the world.'' Under current law, those miners have the right to be transferred to a less dusty work environment at their current workplace and at the same rate of pay," McAteer said. "The early detection of a problem also gives the miner a chance to get the appropriate medical attention needed to better manage the illness and increase the chances of surviving the disease."
Black lung is a progressive disease caused by long-term overexposure to respirable coal mine dust and can lead to heart disease, among other ailments. The National Black Lung Association estimates that the disease leads to the death of 1,500 people each year. A previous chest X-ray program set up to detect black lung that included mine operator funding has been in place for 30 years but suffered from low participation rates that hovered around 25 percent nationwide. MSHA addressed confidentiality concerns in structuring the new, pilot program by arranging for miners to take the free X-rays with no involvement of the employer.
MSHA plans to test every U.S. coal miner over a five-year period.
by Todd Nighswonger