Black lung review finds doctors 'need training'

PROFESSOR Malcolm Sim and his review team have sifted through hundreds of chest x-rays, visited Bowen Basin mines and are close to releasing the findings of a State Government- commissioned review into the re-emergence of black lung disease.

Prof Sim from the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Monash University, who is heading the review, said the report would go beyond recommendations made in the team's interim report released in March.

In that report, the review team recommended a shake-up of how Nominated Medical Advisers (NMA), the doctors hired to check miners' health, are hired and trained.

It found that NMAs required no formal training other than being a medical practitioner and could be hired "at the discretion of mine companies, contractors and labour hire firms".

"We think that there needs to be more criteria applied to appointment and a training program for them as well, which used to be the case but dropped off with the boom," Prof Sim said.

"The reality is that not all doctors necessarily have the skills and the background and the expertise to be able to do (health checks) to the quality needed."

Of Queensland's 237 NMAs, 62% are general practitioners, 12% are occupational physicians and 26% are others.

Prof Sim said, should State Government adopt the recommendations, mining companies would still be responsible for hiring the NMAs, but their appointment would have to meet Department of Natural Resources and Mines criteria.

Prof Sim said that purpose of health checks at mine sites needed to change.

"The purpose had shifted from being a medical screening for the early detection of coal dust exposure to a fitness for work assessment," he said.

"It's really important that that purpose - the early detection of lung disease - be raised… The NMAs need to understand that, they need some further training in coal dust exposure."

About a month ago, Prof Sim visited an open-cut coal mine near Moranbah to speak to mine workers and get a fuller picture of the situation.

"I think there's certainly a degree of concern about this, around the confidence in the medical assessments that are done, concern about how reliable the feedback they get is," he said.

The review team has also examined 268 chest x-rays, provided by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines.

In the interim report, the team recommended that electronic data collection and storage of chest x-rays be implemented, with the facility to link and access all records for individual mine workers.

Prof Sim said a key part of the review was the correct training of NMAs.

"Making sure that they understand the purpose that they're adequately trained to be able to collect the information from the workers and interpret that information and act upon it is absolutely critical to the success of any medical screening program."

The reference group will meet next Tuesday, when a date will be set for the release of the report.

Coal mining in Qld

  •  54 coal mines in Queensland in 2013-14, of which 41 were open cut and 13 underground.
  •  About 5000 underground coal miners in Queensland at the end of 2015.
  •  The vast majority of coal is coking and thermal coal.

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