Despite the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was groundbreaking workplace safety legislation, not only have coal miners been exposed to insane amounts of coal dust, but federal regulators and the coal industry have known about this for 20 years.
What has happened?
First, even though the total number of people employed by the coal industry has declined precipitiously, the average hours for coal miners still working has gone up by 11 hours a week over the last 30 years. That’s a terrible thing for many reasons, but, as the NPR story states, it exposes workers to 600 hours of additional coal dust exposure per year.
Second, new technology has vastly increased the amount of coal mined, putting more dust in the air and thus making workers’ lives more dangerous.
Probably the biggest issue is that the mine owners resist every move to test for black lung. Like industries around the country, the coal mining capitalists have attempted to take control of the regulatory process in order to roll back the protections miners have made. They are less successful during Democratic administrations, but quite successful when Republicans are president.
Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.
In any case, if the goal of industry is to return the United States to the Gilded Age, killing coal miners with black lung is a pretty good way to do it.