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Coal Worker's Pneumoconiosis Workup

  • Author: Farhan J Khan, MD; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
Updated: Dec 16, 2015

Laboratory Studies

Obtain a CBC count and perform a sputum culture (as needed) to exclude infective processes.


Imaging Studies

Historically, radiographs remain the main diagnostic tool. The International Labor Organization developed a 12-point classification for standardizing the diagnosis of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. A standard set of radiographs reflecting the amount of coal retained in the lungs is used for comparison. The scale represents a continuum of dust accumulation with nodule formation from category 0/0 to 3/4. Generally, complicated coal worker’s pneumoconiosis appears on a background of category 3 or 4 simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.

Simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis usually develops as small, rounded opacities first observed mostly in the upper lobes. These densities can be classified as follows:

  • P - Up to 1.5 mm in diameter
  • Q - 1.5-3 mm in diameter
  • R - 3-10 mm in diameter

The lung zones are identified as follows:

  • RUZ and LUZ - Right upper zone and left upper zone, respectively
  • RMZ and LMZ - Right mid zone and left mid zone, respectively
  • RLZ and LLZ - Right lower zone and left lower zone, respectively

Any nodular opacity greater than 1 cm in diameter on radiographs is considered complicated coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or progressive massive fibrosis. Subcategories for this group are as follows:

  • A - Any opacity 1-5 cm in diameter
  • B - Any opacity with a diameter of 5 cm that occupies less than a third of the lung
  • C - One or more opacities whose diameter exceeds a third of the total area of the lung

Of note, in a small study by Reichert and Bensadoun, positron emission tomography (PET) with F-18-fluorodeoxyglucose proved to be of limited value in the evaluation of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis and associated malignancy, yielding a high rate of false-positive results.[27]


Other Tests

On pulmonary function test results, persons with simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis do not show significant impairment of lung function or a decrease ventilatory capacity. A slight decrease in the alveolar-arterial pressure gradient can be observed, along with a minor reduction in diffusing capacity (P category) and minimal hypoxemia observed in categories 2 and 3 (secondary to physiological shunting). If present, focal emphysema can result in a slight increase in compliance of the lung and an increase in residual volume.[18]

With regard to pulmonary function tests in persons with complicated coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, abnormalities are detected in stages B and C. Ventilatory capacity is reduced in proportion to the size of the conglomerate mass.[18] Diffusing capacity is also decreased. If the mass is large enough to destroy significant vascularity, pulmonary hypertension ensues. Additionally, hypoxemia develops earlier and more frequently in miners who smoke.

In their 4-year longitudinal study, Bourgkard et al[28] determined that "worsening x-ray findings and pneumoconiosis were more often observed in coal miners with micronodules on CT scans, wheezing, low values of maximal midexpiratory flow (MMEF) and forced expiratory flow (FEF25-75%), and high dust exposure at first examination." This finding suggests that the presence of micronodules on CT scans, altered scores on pulmonary function tests, and wheezing signify a worse 4-year prognosis and increased risk of progression to progressive massive fibrosis. CT scanning, therefore, might be a helpful screening tool to monitor progression to pneumoconiosis.

Vallyathan et al[29] found that "in miners without coal worker’s pneumoconiosis antioxidants, cytokine and growth factors are maintained at baseline levels present in control subjects." In contrast, miners with simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis exhibit markedly elevated bronchoalveolar lavage fluid concentrations of antioxidants, proinflammatory cytokines, and mediators, which increase fibroblast proliferation. The inability of the lungs to maintain a balance between oxidant burden and antioxidant defenses may play a crucial role in the genesis of the disease. Increased levels of interleukins 1 and 6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, transforming growth factor-beta1, transforming growth factor-beta2, alpha1-proteinase inhibitor, and fibronectin were found in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of miners with radiographically defined coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.

The 6-minute walk test (6MWT), a simple to perform test can be done as an ancillary test to help quantify possible impairment due to CWP in addition to chest imaging and pulmonary function testing.[30]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Farhan J Khan, MD Fellow in Pulmonary Disease, University of Tennessee Medical Center

Farhan J Khan, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP Geri and Richard Brawerman Chair in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Professor and Executive Vice Chairman, Department of Medicine, Medical Director, Women's Guild Lung Institute, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Sat Sharma, MD, FRCPC Professor and Head, Division of Pulmonary Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Manitoba; Site Director, Respiratory Medicine, St Boniface General Hospital

Sat Sharma, MD, FRCPC is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Thoracic Society, Canadian Medical Association, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Royal Society of Medicine, Society of Critical Care Medicine, World Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Amit Dhingra, MD Fellow in Pulmonary Disease, University of Tennessee Medical Center at Knoxville

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Richard A Obenour, MD (Retired) Professor and Vice-Chair, Department of Medicine, University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Julia Richards van Zyl, MD Staff Physician, Knoxville Inpatient Physicians, Department of Internal Medicine/Hospitalist, University of Tennessee Medical Center

Julia E Richards is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine and American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Gross specimen demonstrating simple coal worker's pneumoconiosis.
Gross specimen demonstrating progressive massive fibrosis in a coal miner.
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