Section of a coal worker's lung showing black lung disease with progressive massive fibrosis.Contributed
Section of a coal worker's lung showing black lung disease with progressive massive fibrosis.Contributed Contributed

Black lung thought "as likely as polio" before it returned

QUEENSLAND'S top medical association believes radiologists considered black lung as improbable as the near-eradicated polio before the disease reappeared.

Until it failed, doctors believed the Queensland Coal Mine Workers' Health Scheme was so effective they did not think they needed to worry about the disease.

Similarly, the Queensland Resources Council says the industry "placed enormous faith" in the QCMWHS to ensure coal dust control measures were working.

These submissions were made to the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis (CWP).

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Chris Zappala said radiologists believed black lung was a disease of the past.

"For example, one radiologist we spoke to said that because there had not been a case of CWP or silicosis for over 10 years, most radiologists would have placed these at the bottom of their differential list, much as a general practitioner would put polio at the bottom of theirs," his submission said.

The AMAQ submission said it was likely the number of people applying for coal mine jobs during the 2005 and 2013 mining boom had overwhelmed the QCMWHS.

"One easily identifiable reason for this breakdown is the massive changes occurring in the mining industry at this time. More workers were being employed by the industry and more coal was being extracted, which led to more dust and longer exposure time to more workers," it said.

Mining scientists have told the inquiry they are concerned with how quickly the industry reacted to new dust reduction standards and how many people may have black lung.

NSW-based dust particle scientist Brian Plush told the inquiry he believed the number of cases would increase and the disease would emerge in other states.

"The CWP cases being identified now are a small indicator of what is to come. This will be an epidemic," Dr Plush said.

One of the country's most respected mining educators, Odwyn Jones, warned the Australian coal industry had been slow to adopt modern coal dust monitoring standards.

"In writing this paper it became apparent to the author how slowly the Australian mining industry reacts to developments in the field of occupational health and safety and the subsequent implementation of more stringent occupational health standards adopted elsewhere and in particular North America," he said.

Mining company Vale told the inquiry four of the confirmed black lung cases were in workers it employed at the Carborough Downs outside Moranbah.

Vale has since sold Carborough Downs to Fitzroy Queensland Resources. FQR declined to comment.

Glencore told the inquiry three of its employees had confirmed cases. The company did not confirm what mines they worked at but said all had "distinct differences in the work history of the individuals and the time they have worked in the coal mining industry".

BHP said there were three cases of black lung in its workforce including one in an open-cut coal mine. Anglo American told the inquiry there was one confirmed case and one unconfirmed case within the company's workforce.

The Queensland Resources Council's submission said neither industry, government nor unions believed black lung was a risk of reappearing.

The inquiry is set to deliver its report to parliament on April 12.


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