In this podcast, Paul Kelley from the Personal Injury Law Firm, Satterley & Kelley PLLC, talks about the link between coal mining equipment and mesothelioma. He explains what people should do if they were exposed to asbestos and developed mesothelioma.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky Personal Injury Law Firm, Satterley & Kelley PLLC, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Today we’re talking about coal mining equipment and mesothelioma. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Good morning, John. How are you doing today?
How Were Coal Miners Exposed to Asbestos?
John: Good, thanks. So Paul, I’ve heard of asbestos mining, but how could coal miners be exposed to asbestos?
Paul: John, coal miners can be exposed to asbestos in a variety of ways. And it’s not really just the miners, it’s others that work in coal mines. But there’s really two ways that folks that work in coal mines can get exposed to asbestos. One, unfortunately, is through naturally growing or naturally occurring asbestos that is located in the mines where coal is mined. Both coal and asbestos are naturally occurring products, they’re both mined, and frequently they’re found in some of the same places. So coal miners who actually mine coal sometimes will encounter asbestos, unknowingly, of course, but that’s certainly one way they can be exposed.
The other way that folks are exposed to asbestos in coal mines has to do with the equipment that’s used, and we’ll talk about that in a little further detail. But all this equipment, whether it’s for a surface mine that’s, of course, above ground, or an underground mine, all of the equipment at one point in time contained asbestos products. Those products were brakes to stop the machines. Those products were packing material, which we could talk about in a little further detail. There was gasket material that was located on these machines. And it wasn’t just a little bit, it was a lot.
Asbestos in Explosion-Proof Boxes in Mining Equipment
Paul: Underground coal mines were particularly dangerous because you have a real problem with explosions occurring in those mines. They’re typically what’s called gassy mines. And any sort of spark could cause a catastrophic explosion, which would kill numerous people and damage the mine, and be catastrophic on numerous levels. So one of the things that the equipment had to do was it had to be explosion proof. But the problem is all that equipment is electrical, and it can’t be gas fueled, for obvious reasons, it was electrical. Electrical is certainly safer in an underground mine, but you’re still at high risk for an explosion that’s caused by some sort of spark occurring.
So all of these pieces of equipment that mined, and the kinds of equipment we’re talking about are the shuttle cars that shuttle coal back and forth from the point of retrieval to the surface of the mine, the scrapers that actually extracted the coal, the long wall equipment, which helped solidify the walls and the ceilings or the high points of the mine. All of that equipment was electrical and had electrical cables that ran sometimes to other equipment outside the mine. And then, of course, there were wires and cables that were all connected throughout the machine.
So there was something in those machines called explosion proof boxes. And those explosion proof boxes are essentially where the electrical connections occurred. And all those boxes at one point in time, and when I say one point in time I mean probably prior to 1990, all those boxes contained asbestos, asbestos packing. And they were packed airtight so that nothing could come in from the outside, nothing from the inside could get out. And the purpose of this packing essentially was to retain heat because asbestos has a very high heat retention quality. And that if there was a spark, some sort of electrical occurrence that happened inside that box, the packing would essentially prevent anything from getting outside, anything from causing an ignition outside the mine.
The problem is that the asbestos packing was extremely deadly itself. It was a rope packing material. It was typically manufactured by a company called Johns Manville back in the seventies and eighties. And it was not a product where the asbestos was really encapsulated or the fibers were kept in. In fact, Johns Manville acknowledged that and told the mining equipment suppliers that it doesn’t bind and contain the fibers. So people who handle this material can be exposed to a considerable amount of asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure From Brakes on Mining Equipment
Paul: And then the brakes on these machines, all of the brakes through the mid-1980s contain asbestos. These machines are many thousands of pounds. They are going uphill frequently at steep inclines. They have to change those brakes frequently. And for many years, those brakes contained asbestos and people that worked on them who both took out the old, put in the new, would be exposed to asbestos from working on those products.
And I’m sure that this won’t come to any great surprise to you, but you can’t have downtime in a mine. So it is critical that when a machine needs normal maintenance or when a machine breaks down, it was all hands on deck and they had to get the machines fixed as soon as possible, so that they don’t run the risk of having any downtime. And, as you know, time is money and coal companies operate to essentially earn a profit. And so it was very important to make sure that this equipment ran properly. And it was equally important that it was safe from the standpoint of no ignition. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t safe to the people who worked on these machines.
Which Coal Miners Were the Most Likely to Be Exposed to Asbestos?
John: Right, and now you said that the coal miners have a lot of different jobs, a lot of different jobs of people working or in a coal mine. What are some of the job classifications of coal miners who were the most likely to be exposed to asbestos?
Paul: The two most likely exposed are going to be the mechanics and the electricians. The mechanics did all of the typical kind of work on these machines. They certainly did the brake work. If a belt needed changing, any type of work.
But the electricians were the ones that were dealing with the electrical connections and dealing with this packing material. The electricians, of course, had to be highly skilled workers. They had to be certified. They had to be certified by what’s called MSHA, the Bureau of Mines. They had to be knowledgeable electricians. And so electricians were the ones that broke into those explosion proof boxes. They took the packing out, they unconnected or disconnected the wires, they made the new connections, they replaced all the packing. They either put the old back in or put brand new back in.
But, certainly, anyone who worked alongside those employees were also going to be exposed. I mean, the coal operators themselves, the miners that were extracting the coal, the folks who drove the shuttle cars back and forth, the folks who handled long walls. I mean, in an underground mine, you’re in a very tight space. And although these mines were supposed to have pretty good airflow and be well ventilated, they were not for something like asbestos. They were not for something like coal either. They were ventilated for the purposes of keeping airflow to, again, help reduce the likelihood of an explosion.
But in terms of protecting folks from occupational disease, the mines were not really all that well ventilated and protective of dust exposure. So, again, your mechanics and your electricians, they’re going to bear the brunt of it, but anyone that works in an underground mine is going to have significant exposure because it’s just simply unavoidable.
Coal Mines With Documented Asbestos Exposure
John: Right. So are there specific mines where asbestos exposure has been particularly documented?
Paul: Well, in Kentucky, I would say every mine. We have dealt with Peabody Coal Company in western Kentucky. We’ve dealt with Smith Coal Company, which is also in Western Kentucky. Those are surface mines. The underground mines in eastern Kentucky, which is predominantly what there was in Eastern Kentucky. I mean, Scott’s Branch Mine is a mine that had kinds of equipment. But, essentially, if someone worked in an underground coal mine prior to, I would say, probably 1995, maybe even 2000, more than likely there was equipment in those mines that contained the asbestos products that we’re talking about.
And I think it’s still possible today that some is out there. They probably aren’t using brand new asbestos anymore, but certainly old asbestos products are probably still hanging around out there. And anytime somebody comes into contact with a brake or comes into contact with packing material, they need to be especially cautious and inquisitive. What is this? What is it that we’re working on?
But because of the type of work that was being done, because of the particular risk associated with those mines, I can’t imagine that there were many mines anywhere, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, the places where coal was historically mined in this country, I can’t imagine there were any mines that didn’t have at least some of this equipment that contained asbestos.
Now, John, I would note that there were other materials that were available prior to the nineties that didn’t contain asbestos. There was rubber packing, accomplishing the same goal, preventing ignition and explosion, that didn’t contain asbestos. That was available, but it frequently was not used, probably for cost purposes. Certainly there were non-asbestos brakes that were available, but most companies, again, used asbestos brakes.
And typically what I’ve heard is, well, it was safer to use the asbestos products at the time because they were a known quantity. We know that they would stop the machines in the case of the brakes. With respect to the packing, it was a known quantity. We knew that it would stop ignitions from occurring. But the reality was, they designed those machines for asbestos products and changing the design for another non asbestos product was time consuming, it was costly. And most of these companies, they weren’t going to have to worry about it for 20 or 30 years because that’s how long it takes people to get sick from asbestos exposure.
Illnesses From Asbestos Versus Coal Dust
John: Right. Now, as we know, coal mining is a dangerous job and there’s other diseases that people can get from working in coal mines. Is it possible to tell if someone is sick from asbestos exposure versus exposure to something else like coal dust?
Paul: Yeah, it can be difficult in the short run, but certainly in the long run it would be fairly easy to make that distinction. So, I’m sure you’ve heard of black lung disease, that’s the coal disease. It’s called pneumoconiosis, and it’s a terrible disease. I mean, here in Kentucky, so many people have been afflicted with black lung and it can be fatal. But it’s not a cancer, it is more of a nonmalignant scarring of the lungs. And there are ways that a pulmonologist can evaluate someone and make a determination as to whether they suffer from black lung disease.
Now, with respect to asbestos, there’s really two types of asbestos lung diseases. There’s asbestosis, which is also a non-malignant lung disease. It also is a scarring of the lungs, but it presents differently on a chest x-ray and a CT scan so that doctors can make a determination this is asbestosis versus black lung.
The other disease, lung disease from asbestos exposure is, of course, mesothelioma, which is a cancer, not of the lung, but of the lining of the lung. It’s going to produce far different symptoms than black lung would. It will even produce far different symptoms than what asbestosis would. Because mesothelioma forms in the chest, typically, the early symptoms that we hear are not just breathing problems, which is what you get with black lung or what you get with asbestosis, but severe chest pain because it’s a tumor growing in your chest, severe shortness of breath. They’ll start to experience pain in other parts of their body, whether it’s chest pain, sometimes it’s back pain, depending on the size of the tumor. So when somebody works in a coal mine and they start experiencing lung problems, I think the first inclination is, well, gosh, I probably have some level of black lung.
Black Lung Versus Asbestos-Related Diseases
Paul: And that could very well be true. But it’s critical, it’s critical when those symptoms start to occur, it’s critical for the former coal mining worker to tell their doctors everything that they did. And to tell them, look, coal, big problem, of course, had lots of exposure to coal dust. But I probably had some exposure to asbestos, if not a lot of exposure to asbestos. And all options need to be, or all possibilities need to be explored.
The diseases, from a symptoms standpoint, they do present similarly. But from a medical standpoint, once the doctors get in and conduct their evaluation, they figure it out pretty quickly. This is not black lung, but this is some sort of asbestos disease. But, unfortunately, it’s two terrible things that these brave coal miners and coal mine employees were exposed to.
What to Do If You Got Mesothelioma From a Coal Mine
John: Right. So what should someone do if they believe that they got mesothelioma from working in a coal mine?
Paul: Sure. So what we always tell everybody is obviously your medical treatment is always the most critical part. Early detection is absolutely critical to the best outcome possible. Unfortunately, mesothelioma carries a very dire outcome, and the prognosis for most people is that they pass away from the disease within 12 to 18 months. However, the treatments are getting better and have gotten significantly better over the last 15 or 20 years. And we’re seeing people live for a very long time, five years, 10 years, 15 years, under the right circumstances. So get your medical care established first, that’s always important.
But there are parties out there that are responsible for causing you this disease. Most of the manufacturers of the equipment that I talked about, the shuttle cars and the scrapers and the long wall equipment, I mean all of that equipment, those manufacturers are still out there. Those manufacturers were well aware of what they were putting in these machines, that they were specifying asbestos containing products.
And it would be important to consult with a lawyer to talk about your options. It would also be important to collect as much information as you can concerning the type of exposure that you had. Maybe you don’t remember the manufacturers of the machines that you worked on, but maybe your former coworker does. So it’s critical to conduct some sort of investigation on your own to try to figure out what equipment was used, refresh your recollection, but that’s what we do.
And I remember five years ago, and I’m going to tell on myself a little bit. Five years ago, I didn’t know anything about coal mines and asbestos exposure in coal mines. I thought that it was all from the naturally occurring deposits that might have been in the mines where the coal was found and extracted. But the first case that we had that came in four or five years ago, we got into it a little bit. And I learned an awful lot about how severe the risk was from the exposure to the equipment that we’ve talked about. And since that time, cases that, quite frankly, I might have turned away 4, 5, 6, 10 years ago, now I know exactly where the exposure came from, and we can help you figure that out.
And so my recommendation is, and always is, get your medical plan squared away, but come talk to us, come talk to another lawyer that handles these cases, because we can help. And we can help figure out your exposures and we can help get compensation for you and your family in what, quite frankly, is the most significant time of need that you probably have ever had and ever will have.
Contact the Law Firm of Satterley & Kelley for Help
John: All right. Well that’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks John, I appreciate it.
John: And for more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley & and Kelley PLLC at satterleylaw.com or call 800-655-2117.