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The Black Lung Benefits Act: Operator Liability

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Each day when workers make their way into the mine, there is an unseen danger waiting for them – coal dust. And it doesn’t take long for this daily exposure to take its toll. While those employed in other industries can work into their early 60s before comfortably retiring, black lung can end miners’ careers in their mid-40s, leaving them dependent on oxygen and unable to work.

According to MSHA, mine operators are responsible for the dangers their employees face in the workplace. This is why it is important to understand the provisions of the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) and, more importantly, what you can do to make sure your employees stay healthy and safe.

The Black Lung Benefits Act applies to any employee who has worked in a coal mine or coal preparation facility and has been totally disabled due to coal dust exposure. In addition miners, this could include transportation drivers and construction workers performing duties in or around mines. The BLBA is unique because even if the affected employee is able to work a different job while suffering from black lung, they still could be entitled to some benefits. Also, if a miner passes away from causes attributed to black lung, their surviving dependents can file a claim in his or her name.

Operator Liability Mine operators are liable for the payment of benefits to their disabled employees. If any independent contractors are working on your property, they are responsible for claims made by their own employees. Monthly benefit rates are dependent on an employee’s monthly earnings, any state workers’ compensation awards and if the employee is able to generate supplemental income. Benefits are also adjusted periodically to reflect increases in federal pay rates.

Operators can also be held liable for the payment of medical bills directly related to the treatment of black lung disease in those who are totally disabled. This could include surgical expenses, hospital and nursing care, rehabilitation services and drug or equipment charges.

Securing Benefit Payments According to the BLBA, coal mine operators must secure the payment of benefits they are liable for by ether qualifying as a self-insurer or by obtaining insurance through a commercial carrier or state agency. To become self-insured, an operator must:

  • Be approved by the Department of Labor
  • Have been in the coal mining business for at least three years
  • Demonstrate the ability to service black lung claims
  • Meet minimum asset requirements
  • Obtain an indemnity bond or post other securities to ensure payment of benefits

Regardless of insurance choice, coal mine operators are required to begin paying benefits within 30 days of a final determination of their liability for a worker’s claim.

Preventing Black Lung Employee exposure to coal dust resulting in black lung disease not only destroys a worker’s quality of life – it also leaves you responsible for expensive medical costs and monthly benefit payments.

The only way to stop black lung is to reduce the amount of coal dust that workers breathe in. To keep your employees safe and to reduce frequency and severity of BLBA claims, institute control methods that help cut down on the amounts of dust workers are exposed to. This can be done by limiting causes of dust and also by giving workers the proper equipment to protect their lungs.
Some ways to decrease dust in the air are:

  • Use wet methods to keep dust from being stirred up by drilling or traffic movement.
  • Make sure your facility has adequate ventilation systems in place to contain dust at the source and circulate fresh air.
  • Make use of remote operations for machinery where possible.
  • Provide and encourage the use of respirators among employees.

While coal mining will always present inherent dangers, there are things you can do to increase employee safety and cut down on risk. For questions on coverage options or risk management tips, call The Horton Group at 708-845-3000.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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