By SUSANNAH LEVINE, a freelance writer with 25 years of experience writing and editing for trade publications.
The recent rise of claims for black lung disease, combined with new legislation, could affect pricing of premiums and even insurance companies' decision to underwrite policies for the disease.
After years of decline, black lung disease (Coal Worker's Pneumoconiosis) -- once the occupational hazard of career-long coal miners -- is showing up in younger and younger miners, say experts.
The Journal of Toxicology reports rapidly progressive CWP -- the most swiftly fatal form of the disease -- in younger miners, who are often exposed to coal dust and more toxic silica dust over relatively short careers. The CDC has also published several studies finding severe cases of CWP in younger miners.
"Those miners will collect benefits for the reminder of their lives, and then there are spousal benefits," said Ken Sloan, Marsh Inc.'s U.S. mining practice leader. "Underwriters can expect to pay benefits over a longer period. If claims go up, and benefits are paid over a longer time, premiums will go up also."
In fact, autopsies on the 29 miners who died in the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia showed almost 75 percent had black lung disease, including 33-year-old Gary Wayne Quarles.
Since 2000, rates of black lung disease have doubled, according to Dr. Scott Laney, epidemiologist for the DCD Division of Respiratory Disease Studies. Black lung disease killed more than 10,000 coal miners in the past decade, according to the CDC.
"We already see legislative signs that will make it more difficult for companies to defend against black lung claims," said Sloan.
The Black Lung Benefits Act of 2010 darkens the horizon for mining companies because it now allows for survivors' benefits without the need to establish that the miner died of black lung disease. In addition, miners no longer have to prove 15 years of coal mine employment or prove that they have a totally disabling respiratory impairment from working in the mines. Employers now bear the burden of proof that the miner does not have black lung disease or is not disabled from it.
West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts estimated the legislation could cost the West Virginia Workers' Compensation 'Old Fund' up to $100 million and workers' comp insurers well over $100 million.
None of the coal mining companies contacted for this article returned calls for comment, but National Public Radio estimates companies and their insurers paid $97 million directly in the last three years, not including medical benefits.
"Insurers' long-term ability to manage price exposure and benefits payouts is critical to whether insurance [companies] can continue underwriting black lung," said Sloan.
Also critical, he said, is coal mining companies' ability to manage exposure to the fine coal and silica dust that is deeply implicated in causing black lung disease. Even with all of the required ventilation, dust suppression and dust scrubbers, Sloan said: "The industry can't get to zero exposure."
Even if that's not possible, said Phil Smith, communications director of the United Mine Workers of America, it can reduce exposure enough to protect miners' health. "Black lung is a preventable disease," he said.
Black lung diagnoses plunged 90 percent in the years after the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which slashed the legal limit for exposure to coal dust.
The standards set in 1969, Smith said, no longer apply. "Today's machines are more efficient at extracting coal than the pick axe of the past," he said. "They kick up more dust."
The 1969 standards are also based on a 40-hour work week, which is as outdated as 1969's machinery, he said. Typical work weeks are much longer now, he said.
But Keith Heasley, professor of mining engineering at West Virginia University said that virtually every mine has a dust monitoring system in place.
Disease rates are up anyway, especially in Appalachia. One problem, Heasley said, is the way the law is written. "Federal law doesn't require personal protection equipment because the air is supposed to be within 1 milligram per cubic meter. If it were my son going underground, I'd make sure he wore a respirator."
The UMW estimates that 1,500 former coal miners die each year from black lung disease. There are about 130,000 coal miners in the United States today, down from a high of 760,000 in 1927, according to the Labor Department.
July 17, 2012
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