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June 21, 1994


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County. No. 92 MR 70. Honorable Paul S. Murphy, Judge Presiding.

Slater, McCULLOUGH, Rakowski, Woodward, Rarick

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Slater

JUSTICE SLATER delivered the opinion of the court:

Claimant Oral F. Gower filed an application for adjustment of claim pursuant to the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act (the Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, par. 172.36 et seq.) on June 21, 1984. The arbitrator found that claimant was permanently partially disabled to the extent of 5% as a result of coal workers' pneumoconiosis, chronic bronchitis, and hyperreactive-airways disease. Both claimant and his employer, Freeman United Coal Mining Company, filed petitions for review of the arbitrator's decision. The Industrial Commission (the Commission), with one member Dissenting, modified the arbitrator's decision and found that claimant was permanently partially disabled to the extent of 30%. The circuit court confirmed the decision of the Commission. On appeal, the employer contends that the Commission's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Specifically, the employer argues that each of the following findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence: (1) that claimant was last exposed to an occupational disease on June 16, 1984; (2) that claimant has an occupational disease; (3) that claimant's condition of ill-being is causally related to an occupational disease; (4) that claimant is permanently partially disabled to the extent of 30% of the man as a whole; and (5) that claimant proved disablement within two years after the last day of last exposure to the hazards of an occupational disease.

Claimant was born on September 17, 1928, and was 62 years old at the time of arbitration. He began working as a coal miner in 1944 when he hand-loaded coal at a mine in Marion, Illinois. The environment was very dusty, and he breathed coal dust on a daily basis. After serving in the Army, claimant worked for Peabody Coal Company at its number 40 mine at Harrisburg, Illinois. Claimant worked as a roof bolter, and he was exposed to large amounts of coal dust.

In 1954, claimant began working at the employer's number four mine in Pittsburg, Illinois, where he acted as a roof bolter, laborer, belt repairman, examiner, and diesel mechanic. The last five or six years of his employment he worked above ground as a diesel mechanic. Claimant described the dust conditions as "pretty bad" and "at times it was real bad and you couldn't hardly see the beltline." Claimant testified that he had worked more than 37 years in coal mining and he was exposed to and breathed coal dust on a daily basis. He stated that he stopped working because he had trouble breathing and he was unable to carry tools or equipment or work at a rapid pace. Claimant first noticed his breathing problems in 1972 while working as a belt repairman. He was subject to frequent colds and infections, and he became short of breath whenever he tried to do anything fast. Claimant testified that on June 16, 1984, his last day of employment, he was working as a diesel mechanic and he was exposed to and breathed coal dust.

Claimant has never done any type of work other than coal mining, and he has not been employed since June 16, 1984. He did not seek employment after leaving mining because he was unable to work. Claimant testified that his breathing problems have worsened over the years, limiting his activities. By the time of arbitration he could only walk 20 to 30 yards or climb five or six stairs before he had to stop and catch his breath.

Claimant's only significant mine accident occurred in 1982 when he was hit in the head by a pipe while putting a boom on a drag line. He was taken to Marion Hospital and was off work for one week. Hisaccident-related problems have gone away. Other than his breathing difficulties, he has no health problems.

Dr. Herman Lyle, who is board certified in internal medicine, testified that claimant has been his patient since June 30, 1978. During that time, claimant has had office visits on an average of once every two months. At claimant's initial visit with Dr. Lyle he complained of shortness of breath and reported that he had a daily productive cough for more than five years. Pulmonary-function tests taken in March of 1977 by claimant's former treating physician were interpreted as evidencing mild obstructive pulmonary disease with reversibility to normal after using bronchiodilaters. These findings are most often seen in bronchospasms, such as asthmatic bronchitis. A pulmonary-function study performed in 1980 revealed forced vital capacity of 61% of predicted, FEV[1] of 68% of predicted, FEF of 90% of predicted, and MVV of 50% of predicted. Another pulmonary-function study was performed in 1983, and it showed normal volume and normal flow. The 1983 study also revealed that claimant had a decreased functional residual capacity, the etiology of which was unknown. Dr. Lyle compared the 1983 pulmonary-function test results to the 1980 pulmonary-function test results and felt there was marked improvement. He testified that it was not normal for the pulmonary-function test results to improve so much over time. Those findings may have resulted from the use of new and more accurate equipment in 1983.

Arterial-blood-gas testing performed in 1983 revealed findings within normal limits. A chest Xray taken in November of 1983 was negative. According to Dr. Lyle, a person can have normal pulmonary-function studies and normal arterial-blood-gas studies and still have a severe respiratory impairment. Dr. Lyle testified that he diagnosed claimant as suffering from exogenous obesity, which is caused by overeating or underexercising. Obesity can cause symptoms of tiredness and shortness of breath. Dr. Lyle testified that claimant complained of feeling tired and weak and easily fatigued and that these symptoms could be related to his obesity.

In Dr. Lyle's opinion, claimant has a respiratory ailment caused by his prolonged exposure to coal dust. He further opined that claimant has chronic bronchitis related to the inhalation of coal dust. Dr. Lyle also testified that claimant exhibited symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis, which is one component of his overlying bronchitis. Although he was unsure if inhaling coal dust could cause asthma, Dr. Lyle stated that coal dust could definitely aggravate an underlying asthmatic condition. In Dr. Lyle's opinion, claimant's respiratory impairment precluded him from working as a coal miner, and froman overall medical standpoint, he was totally disabled from working in any capacity. Claimant's respiratory problems were permanent, and further exposure to coal dust would aggravate his condition.

Dr. Lyle further testified that claimant is also disabled from working in coal mining as a result of the head injury he sustained in 1982. Dr. Lyle did not treat claimant with regard to his head injury, which causes vertigo, but he was aware of the condition. Dr. Lyle testified that claimant's vertigo puts him at risk for working around heavy equipment.

Dr. Vest, who is board certified in internal and pulmonary medicine, examined claimant on October 2, 1984. That examination consisted of a patient history, a physical examination, an EKG, pulmonary-function testing, arterial-blood-gas testing, and a chest Xray. Claimant related to Dr. Vest a four- to five-year history of increasing shortness of breath; claimant was able to walk approximately one block and climb approximately two to three flights of stairs. Claimant also told Dr. Vest of a daily cough which had persisted for the last eight years.

Physical examination of the chest revealed normal expansion with very fine rales at both bases. Arterial-blood-gas studies yielded findings within normal limits. Pulmonary-function-study results were consistent with mild obstruction to airflow. Because of suboptimal efforts, however, the results were not valid for interpretation. A chest Xray did not reveal evidence of pneumoconiosis. Based on claimant's history of exposure to coal dust and the results of his physical examination, Dr. Vest concluded that claimant had coal workers' pneumoconiosis. Although Dr. Vest described claimant's impairment as la minimal degree of ...

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