Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright #1 & 2 Mines, Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky. 1946.via Wikimedia Commons
From the Mine Wars to Bloody Harlan, the coal miners of Appalachia have a long and storied history of fighting for the rights and protections often denied to them while mining the region’s rich bituminous coal.
So when men who had worked their whole lives underground began dying in increasing numbers from a chronic respiratory illness, their lungs literally blackened from years of inhaling coal dust, Appalachians did as they have often done.
As labor studies scholar Alan Derickson writes, they organized a grassroots movement to challenge the deadly working conditions in the coal mines.
Coal mining has always been a dangerous job, but by the 1950s, technological advances that automated some of the miner’s tasks, like the continuous miner, had succeeded in reducing the number of deaths and injuries from mechanical accidents.
But the new equipment also significantly increased miner’s exposure to coal dust, leading to a spike in the number of workers afflicted by black lung disease.
Eventually, over 40,000 workers participated in a strike that advocated for better workplace safety measures.
Black lung, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is a terminal respiratory condition caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Particles of dust settle into the lungs, progressively weakening the organs and causing shortness of breath and coughing fits.
Later stages of the disease cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Because black lung can lie dormant for years, appearing long after a miner had left the job, coal operators denied the connection between coal mining and black lung for decades.
According to the Department of Labor, more than 76,000 miners have died from the disease.