Symptoms include cough and shortness of breath which can progress over time.
Chest x-rays and computed tomography are used to make the diagnosis.
People may take medications to help their breathing.
Prevention by minimizing exposure to coal mining dust is important.
(See also Overview of Environmental and Occupational Lung Disease Overview of Environmental and Occupational Lung Disease Environmental and occupational lung diseases result from inhalation of dusts, chemicals, gases, fumes, and other airborne exposures. The lungs are continually exposed to the external environment... read more .)
People with coal worker pneumoconiosis have either
Complicated pneumonoconiosis, also known as progressive massive fibrosis
In simple coal worker pneumoconiosis, coal mining dust collects around the small airways (bronchioles) of the lungs. People with simple coal worker pneumoconiosis typically do not have breathing symptoms.
Complicated coal worker pneumoconiosis or progressive massive fibrosis, a more serious form of the disease, develops in some people with simple coal worker pneumoconiosis. Large scars (at least ½ inch [about 1.3 centimeters] in diameter) develop in the lungs as a reaction to coal mining dust. Progressive massive fibrosis may worsen even after exposure to coal mining dust stops. Recently, rapid development of progressive massive fibrosis has been found among young coal miners, especially in the eastern United States. Lung tissue and blood vessels in the lungs can be destroyed by the scarring.
Following the enactment of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, there was a decline in coal worker pneumoconiosis in the United States. However, since the late 1990s there has been a resurgence of coal worker pneumoconiosis, especially severe progressive disease. This resurgence is most likely due to greater silica exposure. Possible explanations for the increased silica exposure include disregard for health and safety regulations, greater silica content in the coal mining dust, less accessible coal seams that require cutting through more rock, and changes in work practices, such as the use of high-powered equipment that can produce more dust with finer particles.
Causes of Coal Worker Pneumoconiosis
Coal worker pneumoconiosis is an occupational lung disease Overview of Environmental and Occupational Lung Disease Environmental and occupational lung diseases result from inhalation of dusts, chemicals, gases, fumes, and other airborne exposures. The lungs are continually exposed to the external environment... read more that results from inhaling coal mining dust over a long time, often 10 years or more. Cumulative dust exposure is the most important risk factor in the development of coal worker pneumoconiosis.
The quantity of crystalline silica in coal mining dust is also an important risk factor for progressive disease. Miners working in underground mines, closer to the extraction point, and those involved in cutting or drilling are at greater risk of coal worker pneumoconiosis.
Symptoms of Coal Worker Pneumoconiosis
Symptoms commonly include shortness of breath, cough, and sputum production. The disease can progress even after exposure stops. Progressive massive fibrosis can progress to end-stage lung disease.
Coal mining dust can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is persistent narrowing (blocking, or obstruction) of the airways occurring with emphysema, chronic obstructive bronchitis, or both disorders. Cigarette... read more (COPD) independent of smoking. Obstructive lung disease occurs in coal miners even in the absence of coal worker pneumoconiosis. Chronic bronchitis with symptoms of cough and sputum production is also common. The decline in lung function increases with greater cumulative dust exposure.
Coal mining dust exposure is associated with increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory arthritis in which joints, usually including those of the hands and feet, are inflamed, resulting in swelling, pain, and often destruction of joints.... read more .
Lung cancer Lung Cancer Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. About 85% of cases are related to cigarette smoking. One common symptom is a persistent cough or a change in the character... read more risk is elevated in workers exposed to coal mining dust. The mining environment contains multiple contributors to lung cancer risk, including silica and diesel exhaust fumes. The risk of tuberculosis is also increased in people with coal worker pneumoconiosis.
Diagnosis of Coal Worker Pneumoconiosis
History of coal mining exposure
Chest imaging (computed tomography or x-ray)
Doctors make the diagnosis of coal worker pneumoconiosis after noting characteristic spots on a chest x-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan of a person who has been exposed to coal mining dust for many years.
Treatment of Coal Worker Pneumoconiosis
Reduction of further exposure
Treatment of symptoms
Workers with more advanced coal worker pneumoconiosis, such as progressive massive fibrosis, should avoid further exposure.
Treatment of coal worker pneumoconiosis is directed toward the symptoms. People who have no symptoms do not need treatment. However, workers who have signs of obstructive lung disease (for example, difficulty breathing) may benefit from treatments used for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is persistent narrowing (blocking, or obstruction) of the airways occurring with emphysema, chronic obstructive bronchitis, or both disorders. Cigarette... read more (COPD).
A person with symptoms of advanced disease may benefit from oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation Pulmonary Rehabilitation Pulmonary rehabilitation is the use of supervised exercise, education, support, and behavioral intervention to improve how people with chronic lung disease function in daily life and to enhance... read more to make activities of daily living easier.
Lung transplantation Lung and Heart-Lung Transplantation Lung transplantation is the surgical removal of a healthy lung or part of a lung from a living person and then its transfer into someone whose lungs no longer function. Heart-lung transplantation... read more is recommended for those most severely affected.
Coal workers who smoke are encouraged to stop (see Smoking Cessation Smoking Cessation Most people who smoke want to quit and have tried doing so with limited success. Effective tools to help quit smoking include counseling, nicotine replacement products, and medications. While... read more ). People should be monitored so that tuberculosis Tuberculosis (TB) Tuberculosis is a chronic contagious infection caused by the airborne bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It usually affects the lungs, but almost any organ can be involved. Tuberculosis... read more and other complications are detected early.
Workers may be advised to get the pneumococcal vaccine Pneumococcal Vaccine Pneumococcal vaccines help protect against bacterial infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococci). Pneumococcal infections include ear infections, sinusitis, pneumonia... read more , the COVID-19 vaccine COVID-19 Vaccine Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines provide protection against COVID-19. COVID-19 is the disease caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There are multiple COVID-19 vaccines... read more , and annual influenza vaccination Influenza Vaccine The influenza virus vaccine helps protect against influenza. Two types of influenza virus, type A and type B, regularly cause seasonal epidemics of influenza in the United States. There are... read more to help protect against infections to which they may be more vulnerable.
Prevention of Coal Worker Pneumoconiosis
Preventive measures begin with eliminating or reducing exposure, such as suppressing coal dust at a work site and using ventilation systems. A properly fitted respirator that filters the air may provide some additional benefit.
Doctors usually recommend that coal workers have screening chest x-rays, so that the disease can be detected at a relatively early stage. If the disease is detected, further exposure to coal mining dust should be minimized to limit progression of disease.