Working Life

As numbers hit by black lung disease increase, Unions call for better checks


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By the Working Life Team

Friday, 15 January 2016

AS the numbers of workers diagnosed with the potentially fatal black lung disease rose this week, Unions are warning its just the tip of the iceberg.

Black Lung, or Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis, is caused by a build up of coal dust in the lungs due to inadequate ventilation and health standards in coal mines.

The disease was thought to  have been eradicated in Australia, until new outbreaks were recently discovered in Queensland’s coal industry late last year.

Now, as a new case was confirmed this week, unions are angry the disease has resurfaced even though health checks were supposed to be in place to protect workers.

While a regulatory system was set up to monitor and detect a range of health issues affecting coal mine workers, which included providing regular x-rays, the miners union believes the system has not been maintained and is compromised.

X-rays and lung tests have been used since 1947 as an early warning system to detect early signs of black lung and dust levels in mines have been constantly monitored.

However, the mining boom and new longwall mining techniques have exposed more miners to more dust.

CFMEU state mining and energy division president Steve Smyth is calling for a full inquiry, and says workers feel let down by a health system they trusted.

“It’s a terrible state of affairs when here in Queensland in the 21st century we don’t’ have qualified people that can read these X-rays, for a disease that has been around since the 18th and 19th centuries,” he said.

A major review of the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme is being carried out and the government is looking at possible changes to mine safety laws.

The review is welcome, but more is needed says the CFMEU.

“There needs to be a public inquiry with an independent commissioner with public submissions to get to the bottom of this,” said Mr Smyth.

“How we can have such a terrible disease that people thought was eradicated, suddenly be back and maybe worse than ever.”

Queensland’s Department for Natural Resources and Mines confirmed the latest case this week.

There are five confirmed cases of black lung so far, with another five ‘potential cases,’ where miners are waiting for the results of tests.

And up to 40 people are on an official list waiting for tests, and this includes past and deceased workers.

The best way to stop people from dying from black lung disease is early diagnosis.

Professor Malcolm Sim, one of the experts tasked with assessing the State’s black lung screening system, said the review would go over miners’ past x-rays and medical records.

“The real question is what is the extent of that increase?” he said.

To stay up to date with the campaign, go to the Dust To Dust page.

What is black lung and why do miners get it?

Coal miners in Queensland have been diagnosed with “black lung”, a brutal disease thought to have been wiped out here more than 20 years ago.

Now mining companies and health authorities are being criticised for allowing checks and standards to deteriorate enough to see the disease return.

So what is black lung? And why is it back?

Black lung is a chronic, irreversible occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation and deposition of coal dust in the lungs.

With prolonged exposure, the inhaled fine dust particles overwhelm the lung’s defence mechanisms. The particles accumulate in the parts of the lung where oxygen from the air is taken up by the blood and carbon dioxide waste is released from the blood. This causes inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue.

In the early stages of the disease these accumulations of coal dust and the affected lung tissue will show up as small (less than 1cm) rounded opacities (opaque masses) on x-rays.

Patients with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis can experience shortness of breath and a chronic cough. With further exposure and time the disease may progress to a more severe form known as progressive massive fibrosis.

When the accumulations of coal dust and abnormal lung tissue lump together larger lesions show up on x-ray. As these lesions lump together there is generally significant destruction of lung tissue, with debilitating severe symptoms including shortness of breath, chronic cough, coughing up black mucus, high blood pressure, heart problems

What causes black lung?

The only cause of black lung is excessive inhalation of “respirable” coal dust — particles small enough to reach the spaces in the lung where gas exchange takes place. Deposition of dust in the lungs causes scarring of lung tissue.

How is it treated?

There is no specific treatment for either simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or progressive massive fibrosis that can slow or reverse the progressive scarring of the lung tissue.
Medical care of patients is palliative and is directed at limiting complications, including airflow obstruction and associated lung disorders, and protecting against infectious complications.

How do you prevent it?

As black lung cannot be cured, the only way to control it is through preventing exposure to coal dust. The strict application of engineering controls such as dust suppression combined with ventilation systems in all mining operations is necessary to limit exposure to respirable coal dust to levels below recognised occupational exposure standards.

Why has it come back?

With the introduction of stringent dust control measures in mining in the developed world in the 1970s, this disease was virtually eradicated. But recent confirmed cases of the illness can only be the result of overexposure to coal dust. This is probably due to a relaxation of dust control regimes in many countries in recent years.

The Queensland Resource Council has admitted it had become complacent with regulations. A review is underway to investigate practices that allowed this to occur.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


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We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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