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NIOSH uses mobile medical screening trucks to test coal miners for black lung

By CONNOR GRIFFITH

The State Journal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.  — Preventing and understanding respiratory diseases, especially those faced by coal miners, is one of the core missions of the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, Respiratory Health facility in Morgantown.

A part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH has facilities across the country. The one in Morgantown, next door to Ruby Memorial Hospital, opened in 1996. One of the facility’s four divisions is dedicated to respiratory health research and implementing new discoveries to the workplace.

“Our focus is on improving workers’ respiratory health by preventing occupational respiratory disease and doing what we can to improve workers’ respiratory health,” Respiratory Health Division Directory David Weissman said. “There’s a lot of work-related to respiratory disease in the country. By our estimates, there are probably at least 2,000,000 people that have work-related asthma.”

Among the tools at the division’s disposal are two Mobile Occupational Safety and Health Units. The trucks are packed with specialized medical screening capabilities that travel to work sites, providing chest X-rays and breathing tests for miners to check for black lung.

Cara Halldin, a team lead on one of these trucks, said the service is provided completely free to miners. She said these services are guaranteed to them by the Federal Coal Mine and Health Safety Act of 1969. This act mandates mining companies provide these clinical services to miners.

“In the event a miner doesn’t go, we provide this as a supplement. This allows us to do outreach,” Halldin said, adding that while mining companies are required to provide those services, the miners aren’t required to use them, and many of them don’t.

This, she said, is often because of distance between the mine, the selected clinic and the miner’s home. So, the mobile units park on the work site where they’re most accessible. Halldin said the test results are kept confidential. She added that the services are also offered to surface miners to whom the Federal Coal Mine and Health Safety Act didn’t apply.

Weissman said his division’s focus isn’t limited to mine-related scenarios. For example, in NIOSH’s Health Hazard Evaluation Program, workers and employers can request the agency’s help finding hazards in a workplace, he said.

Through this program, NIOSH discovered 15 years ago that workers at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant were afflicted with bronchiolitis obliterans after being exposed to butter flavoring vapor. Weissman said NIOSH researchers determined a chemical in the vapor, diacetyl, was responsible for the cases. The agency then worked with the manufacturer to lower worker exposure.

“We’re really dedicated to preventing respiratory disease,” Weissman said. “If there are any workplaces (that need us), we’re here to help. Even though we’re a national organization, we’re still part of West Virginia.”

Looking to the future, Weissman said NIOSH is continuing to examine potential respiratory hazards faced by those working in the natural gas industry.

Staff writer Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at [email protected]

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