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Kentucky Miners Avoid Black Lung Screening For Fear Of Losing Jobs

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Despite free government programs, only
about 16 percent of Kentucky miners get screened for black lung - about half the national average for coal-mining states.

Many miners avoid screenings out of fear of losing their jobs,
The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported Monday.

Miners must share their black-lung diagnosis with their bosses
almost immediately if they want to receive state benefits. And if
miners are found to have black lung, there's often no safe place
for them to work in a mine. That leaves many worried that their
employers would find reasons to let them go.

The results have proven deadly.

Black lung death rates in Kentucky rose 38 percent in the six
years ending in 2004, even as they dropped in other major
coal-mining states, according to the newspaper.

The black lung deaths, though deemed completely preventable by
federal officials, are expected to continue.

Among Kentucky miners getting chest X-rays last year, the number
of black lung cases was three to five times higher than expected.

Coal companies have a significant hand in the screening process.
A federal program requires that miners be offered screenings at
various times, but the bills are sent to employers, allowing them
to find out who has been screened.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said
mine operators support screening for black lung. Well-run companies
don't fire or demote employees for having the disease, he said, and
only fight unjust benefit claims.

He also said the employees need to take matters into their own
hands.

"If they find out they're starting to get it," he said, "they
need to get out of this industry."

However, that places miners in a position of choosing health
over income in a region where mining is one of the highest-paying
jobs.

"There's a good basis for fearing that companies know you have
black lung," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate.

It's easier to fire coal miners in eastern Kentucky, where
nearly all mines are nonunion, he said.

Quincy Cook, a recently retired miner, got confirmation he had
the disease only when he was ready to quit the mines.

"I knew that I had black lung" for years," said Cook, of
Bevinsville. "But I didn't want to go (get screened) because I was
afraid."

Roy Hamilton, a longtime miner with emphysema, said he probably
also has the disease.

But rather than risk a $50,000-a-year salary, he decided to keep
his health concerns from his bosses and get a new job in the mining
industry where he spends most of his time above ground.

"Most of your miners that are working do not come in," said
Anthony Warlick, program coordinator for Respiratory Clinics of
Eastern Kentucky. "They're in a tough position because they don't
want to lose their jobs. People have great distrust for the
mines."

Caylor said miners need not fear getting screening X-rays.

"It's a psychological reason, maybe," he said, "but not a
valid reason."

Davitt McAteer, former director of the U.S. Mine Safety and
Health Administration, said he believes miners make a conscious
choice to stay where they are.

"The high-paying jobs are the high-dust jobs, and the latency
period (for black lung) is long," he said.

Donald Slone of Knott County, 54, is one of the few Kentucky
miners who did get screened and transferred to a less-dusty job.

After years of working underground, he got an X-ray in 2000
showing early black-lung disease. He started doing maintenance on
the surface for International Coal Group before leaving the mines
in February.

"I appreciate them doing that," he said of his bosses.

---

Information from: The Courier-Journal,
http://www.courier-journal.com

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-06-25-07 1542EDT


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