A century ago, coal miners would take canaries in birdcages down into the mines with them. Those birds served as workers’ only warning against dangerous gases in the mine shafts — if the bird stopped singing, it was time to get out.
For generations, coal miners have done important, often dangerous work to provide for their families and to promote energy independence for our nation. That’s why over the past 100 years our nation has passed worker safety laws and benefits protecting miners and other Americans with dangerous jobs.
Yet, too many miners have been denied the benefits they deserve.
Cases of black lung disease are being diagnosed at high levels among our miners. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 76,000 miners have died as a result of black lung disease since 1968.
But independent studies have found that doctors paid by coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with black lung as having other diseases, preventing them from accessing benefits.
And Senate hearings last year revealed some lawyers representing coal companies withheld medical evidence showing miners had black lung disease, causing the miners’ claims to be unjustly denied.
Far too often, coal miners have risked their health to put food on their families’ tables. They shouldn’t have to navigate a system dominated by red tape and corporate lawyers to get the benefits they’ve earned.
That’s why I’m introducing the Black Lung Benefits Improvements Act. This legislation would improve the claims process by preventing coal companies from denying workers and their families the benefits they’re owed.
It would strengthen the benefits program by improving miners’ access to medical evidence, including: requiring full disclosure of all medical information related to a claim, allowing miners to reopen cases if their claims were denied because of discredited medical information, and establishing a pilot program with NIOSH to provide unbiased evidence in the most severe cases.
The bill would also provide miners with improved and timelier benefits, by adjusting the benefits to increase with the cost of living, and by expanding miners’ access to legal representation.
And it would crack down on unethical conduct that undermines benefits by strengthening criminal penalties against those who withhold medical evidence.
Every day, I wear a pin on my lapel depicting the canary in the coal mine. I wear it both as a reminder of the progress we’ve made together, and as a reminder that our duty to protect workers continues.
We need to build on the progress we’ve made, and do all we can to ensure our miners receive the benefits they deserve.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.