The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is offering free and confidential screenings for black lung disease. NIOSH is traveling throughout the West and is in the Gillette area through Saturday as part of its Coal Workers' Health Surveillance Program. NIOSH is a part of the Centers for Disease Control.
Black lung disease is an illness that affects a person's ability to breathe. Coal miners can develop the disease from breathing in dust in the coal mine environment.
NIOSH reports it has seen an increased rate of coal miners with black lung disease since the 1990s. It's also seeing increased numbers of younger miners developing the disease, said Anita Wolfe, a public health analyst for NIOSH.
Wolfe said miners might think they have pneumonia when they first start showing signs of the disease.
"They need to pay attention to their breathing, whether they feel they are getting short of breath when walking like a level surface or a slight hill, whether they are coughing a lot, whether they are bringing up a lot of phlegm from their chest, and things like that," she said.
Wolfe said once a miner is showing symptoms, there are steps they can take to prevent it worsening.
"If we detect they have any stage or any inkling of disease, they get a special letter from us that they can present to the coal company and they have to move them to a less dusty part of the mine," she said.
Wolfe said they have screened around 1,650 miners since starting the tour in April.
NIOSH recommends miners get screened every four and a half to five years, which is when they are eligible for the free screenings. Wolfe said young miners should start getting screened early in their career so their history can be monitored. The screenings are open to current and former miners, including surface, underground and contract miners.