Coal Mines

Summary

Most people would associate health problems in coal mines to black lung disease. That’s a well-documented respiratory condition caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Although coal dust is a nasty substance to inhale, it wasn’t the most dangerous workplace substance found in coal mines.

Approximately 15 percent of America’s coal mines contained asbestos in the coal ore. And for generations, many American coal miners suffered from deadly airborne asbestos exposure.

Coal miners had asbestos exposure from two sources. One came from asbestos fibers native to the rock and disbursed in coal seams. Asbestos fibers became dislodged when ore was drilled, blasted and shoveled. Coal dust clouds contained asbestos particles that miners inhaled during their daily duties.

The second asbestos exposure form was from the mining machinery they operated and the materials miners used in their workplace. Miners ran heavy duty equipment containing asbestos in their heat and friction control systems. Buildings on coal mine sites also included asbestos materials that contributed deadly fibers in the air. Miners also wore protective clothing made of asbestos.

American coal mining dates back to the 1600s. Coal was the primary energy source for heating homes and firing commercial steam boilers on train locomotives and all types of ships. In the late 1800s, coal-fired generators began producing electricity. Many areas still rely on coal-powered electrical generation grids. And from the 1920s until the 1980s, coal mines produced asbestos by-products and consumed large quantities of asbestos-containing materials (ACM).

Asbestos Exposure in American Coal Mines

Coal was a natural substance in most American states, although more significant quantities occurred in some states more than others. Miners used two types of coal extraction processes. Open pit mining harvested ore close to the earth’s surface. Underground mines sought coal seams down to 1,000 feet.

States with the highest amounts of asbestos-containing coal ore were:

  • Arkansas
  • Arizona
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Airborne asbestos exposure was worse in underground mines than in open pit operations. That’s due to more significant airflow in surface pits compared to the poorly-ventilated shafts and tunnel networks common in sub-surface coal mines.

Per the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), estimated open pit mines exposed workers to 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air, while underground coal miners had two fibers per cc or twenty times the airborne asbestos exposure risk.

Coal mines employed many workers in different roles. Some mining occupations placed workers at higher risk of direct asbestos exposure, particularly for miners who handled loose ore.

Some of these at-risk coal miners included:

  • Drillers and blasters.
  • Transport equipment operators.
  • Engineers and surveyors.
  • Hoist operators and car handlers.
  • Supervisors and mine inspectors.
  • General labor and maintenance workers.

Coal Mines and Other Asbestos Exposures

Although 85 percent of American coal mines were free of asbestos in their ore, every coal mine worked with asbestos-containing materials. That went for both open pit and underground mines.  The peak period of widespread ACM use ran from 1920 to 1980. By the mid-80’s, the Environmental Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had removed asbestos from mining equipment.

Some mines were forced to close while others required miners to use protective gear like a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or a high-efficient particulate air-filtered (HEPA) respirator. But, for many coal miners serving for years before stricter regulations became enforced, the damage was already done.

MJN Brief

Miners working with asbestos-free coal ore still had dangerous exposure levels from the equipment they operated and building materials employed on mine sites. Aside from ore-handlers, other workers like carpenters, electricians and drivers spent their careers in asbestos-laden working conditions.

 

The dangerous asbestos exposure came from:

  • Building products like flooring, roofing and insulation.
  • Engine components including sealants and gaskets.
  • Equipment brake linings, clutch faces and firewalls.
  • Pumps, valves and hoses.
  • Protective clothing like gloves, coveralls and masks.

Asbestos Exposure and Coal Mine Workers

Whether airborne asbestos originated from disturbed ore or equipment dust, asbestos particles existed in every coal mine across America. When asbestos materials were disturbed, microscopic fibers detached and became airborne. Unprotected miners inhaled these barely-visible asbestos fibers that impaled their lung linings or what’s called the mesothelium.

Once asbestos fibers infiltrated the lungs, they were impossible to remove. Tiny asbestos shards irritated the mesothelium and caused scar tissue. There’s a lengthy latency period, but eventually, this scar tissue can turn deadly. Asbestos fibers are the sole cause of mesothelioma.

Compensation for Coal Mine Workers with Mesothelioma

Workers developing mesothelioma from coal mine asbestos exposure deserve compensation. Settlements are available to compensate mesothelioma victims for medical expenses, lost incomes and personal injury damages. Families who have a member with mesothelioma can claim on their behalf. They can also file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.