There are many ways that physicians and patients can discover the existence of an injury or a debilitating illness. For coal miners, chest X-rays and radiographic technology are important tools in determining a hard-to-prove suspected illness such as pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.
Coal miners often work in dangerous conditions and many are exposed to respirable dust in both surface and underground mines. So even for those miners who’ve never had a traumatic injury on the job, or experienced a mine explosion or collapse, long-term exposure to coal dust can place them at risk of black lung disease. That’s where chest X-rays can help.
However, current standards under the Black Lung Benefits Act for administering and interpreting X-rays in benefit-claim proceedings address only film radiographs. And in the last 20 years, film-based technology has been rapidly replaced by digital radiography in medical facilities, so fewer physicians are conducting diagnostic testing with the older equipment.
To account for this digital technology, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs published a direct final rule and a companion proposed rule on June 13 adopting standards for administering and interpreting digital radiographs, and updating existing standards for film radiographs submitted in black lung compensation claims. The standards are derived from those adopted last year by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for its Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program.
These actions are viewed as a big step forward by OWCP’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation, which administers claims filed by coal miners and survivors seeking benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. They will allow both film and digital X-rays to be given equal importance in claims adjudications, and accepting diagnoses of black lung disease based on digital imagery will permit more doctors to become involved in the black lung benefits program. Access to X-ray facilities will increase for all parties, and claim decisions will continue to be based on high-quality radiographs essential for determining the presence of black lung disease.
An X-ray diagnosis can mean the difference in detecting an illness, and by getting more physicians involved, OWCP can better ensure timely evaluations and the delivery of benefits for claimants and their families.
Steven D. Breeskin is the director of the Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation, part of the Labor Department’s Office Workers’ Compensation Programs.