Coal union calls for ‘asbestos-workers’ type fund for coal dust victims

Queensland’s coal mining woes worsened quietly with a few paragraphs in a September 2015 annual report from Queensland’s Mine’s Inspectorate.

“The first case of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in a Queensland coal miner in 30 years was reported this year,” Queensland’s Mines Inspector Paul Harrison says on page 3 of his report.

That first case was diagnosed in May 2015.

“Although I am not suggesting that this particular case is linked to the current dust levels, there has been a significant upward trend over the last two years in average dust exposures for longwall and development mining across most sites.”

There are three confirmed cases of “black lung” – or pneumoconiosis – and Queensland’s mining union, the CFMEU’s state president Stephen Smyth is calling for a public inquiry into how this could occur in 2015.

The CMFEU is also calling for a fund for coal miners affected by black lung similar to the fund set up by James Hardie for asbestos workers who now suffer mesothelioma.

Mr Harrison and Mr Smyth have cause for concern. Queensland’s coal mines contain more airborne coal dust in 2014 than they did in 2012, according to the Mines Inspectorate’s report.

The report points out that 60 per cent of mines exposed longwall operators to coal dust levels “equal to, or greater than” the adjusted regulatory exposure limit during 2014.

The most common adjusted exposure limit used in Queensland coal mines is 2.8 mg/m3.

In 2012 only 10 per cent of Queensland’s coal mines had dust levels that were “equal to, or greater than” this adjusted regulatory exposure levels.

“Where exceedances in development activities have occurred, they have been significant and average exposures have increased by 250 to 450 per cent between 2012 and 2014,” the report says, greatly concerning the CFMEU.

This week in Queensland Parliament – three months after the report – Queensland’s Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham said a major review would start immediately.

“Three confirmed cases of pneumoconiosis have been reported by the Queensland coal industry during 2015,” Dr Lynham said.

“As a result, I have asked the director-general of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines to assess what improvements may be required to the coalmine workers health assessment process.

“The department has engaged the Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health to review our existing medical assessment methodologies.”

This week the Commissioner of Mine Safety met Professor Malcolm Simm in Melbourne to outline exactly how the review should operate.

“He and his team met with the Director General of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines and the Commissioner of Mine Safety and Health to finalise the terms of his review,” a spokeswoman for Dr Lynham said on Friday.

Mr Lynham’s office on Friday disagreed with CMFEU state president Stephen Smyth’s claims that Queensland radiologists are not “up to International Labor Organisation” standards in reading x-rays for black lung.

“Radiologists in their initial training are trained to ILO standards,” the spokeswoman said.

“We need to have a cohort of radiologists whose practice is directed at contemporary detection of pneumoconiosis here in Queensland.”

However the spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about why between 80,000 and 100,000 X-rays collected from coal miners had not been read, or how long it would take to ‘review’ the x-rays.

Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche agreed immediate checks on the surveillance of mines should go ahead.

“I understand the genuine health concerns of mine workers, who obviously need to have confidence in the compliance with levels of coal dust being emitted in mines and in screening and medical checks,” Mr Roche said.

“It’s important to know if there are any problems with the medical interpretation of x-rays or if there is non-compliance in mines and any doubts or problems need to be addressed or removed quickly and decisively.”

Stephen Smyth said mine workers needed to insist they had new x-rays and that they be read by qualified radiologists able to identify “black lung.”

He said while US experts were qualified to read chest x-rays to determine “black lung”, Queensland did not have this level of expertise and the reason for the backlog of chest x-rays.

“And they haven’t had this for 10 to 15 years, if not longer.”

Mr Smyth said questions needed to be asked about the Mines Department’s Health Surveillance Unit, which received the chest x-rays from mine companies.

“They are supposed to provide the checks and balances to make sure there is nothing wrong with these x-rays,” he said.

“What we find out now is that there is thousands of x-rays that have not been processed and they are failing to pick-up people that may have dust disease.”

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