December 2, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Mary Kay Magistad of PRI’s The World surveys the cost of China’s huge appetite for coal and reports that it’s harmful to workers as well as air quality. She interviews 37-year-old coal miner Zhong Guangwei, who developed a severe case of pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, after just 10 months of working in a coal mine in the Shanxi province.

“Down in the mine, the coal dust was so thick, we couldn’t even see people who were four or five feet away,” Zhong says. “We had to just shout out to each other, to see who was around. There were no safety precautions, and the ventilation was terrible.”

Zhong huddles now in a blanket, in the spartan whitewashed room he shares with his wife, his 12-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. His six-year-old daughter is back in his farm village, going to school. Zhong says the relatively high pay at the mine, and the chance it gave to let his children rise above the rural poverty he grew up in, was a big reason why he took the job in the first place, and stuck with it long after he developed a cough that wouldn’t go away.

Zhong has had black lung disease for about three years, and victims usually die within six years of falling ill. Zhong took his employer to court and was eventually awarded $40,000, but Magistad reports that miners with the disease often get no compensation at all. And it’s not just coal dust that’s imperiling miners’ health, Magistad points out:

Besides the thousands of coal miners who die a slow, painful death from pneumoconiosis each year, China’s mine accident fatality rate is still by far the highest in the world. About 1,600 Chinese coal miners died in accidents last year – down from an official toll of some 6,000 in 2004. That same year, the death toll from coal mine accidents in the United States was 28. Even when you consider that China produces twice as much coal, and has 50 times more coal mine workers, there’s still a four times greater chance of dying in a coal mine accident in China that in the United States.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, which supplies 70% of the country’s energy.

In other news:

Washington Post: Soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are often put on planes within hours of being injured so they can get quick access to a wide range of specialists at US military hospitals. Post reporter David Brown rides along on one medical evacuation flight.

NPR: Massey Energy has announced that it plans to close its Freedom Energy Mine #1, which last month became the first mine for which the Department of Labor requested a court-ordered shutdown due to dangerous conditions. Over the last two years, the Pike County, Kentucky mine amassed more than 2,000 safety violations and orders.

AFP: A study led by the French Institute for Public Health, Epidemiology, and Development tested a cohort of agricultural workers and found that those from the high-exposure group were twice as likely to see their scores on a battery of neurological tests drop significantly over a four-year period.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA has reissued its Shipbreaking National Emphasis Program, and will conduct inspections of shipbreaking operations that focus on worker health and safety issues like asbestos, confined spaces, and cutting and welding. The agency also issued a directive that requires employers to pay for certain personal protective equipment (steel-toed rubber boots, goggles, hard hats, etc.) for shipyard workers.

Medical News Today: Research examining hospitals’ records of healthcare worker injuries from needles and other sharps found that hospitals using a sharps disposal device designed with Human Factors Engineering had fewer sharps injuries than hospitals that used a different device.

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