New black lung cases prompt call for tighter standards in coal mines

20 June 2016

Tougher coal dust monitoring standards in Australian mines are urgently needed to prevent miners from developing black lung, say medical experts who've slammed the recent resurgence of the potentially deadly disease in Queensland as unacceptable.

A clinical focus, published in the latest Medical Journal of Australia, conducted by experts in chronic lung disease, has found Australian coal dust exposure limits are not meeting international standards and should be more stringent to eradicate black lung.

Coal workers pneumoconiosis — or black lung — is an untreatable but preventable disease caused by long-term exposure to fine airborne coal dust in areas with poor ventilation.

Six confirmed cases of black lung in Australia were reported by nominated medical advisers in the Queensland coal industry between May 2015 and February 2016. However, union groups and activists believe there are many more unconfirmed cases.

This "concerning" and "disappointing" resurgence of black lung disease — which was all but eradicated 30 years ago — could point to a decline in exposure control in Australian coalmines, or a failure of the screening process, say the authors, who include Professor Graeme Zosky from the University of Tasmania and Professor Deborah Yates from Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital.

"It is unacceptable that any new cases of [black lung] should be occurring in Australia in 2016, and our aim should be to eliminate [it] in Australia altogether," they concluded.

They are calling for national standardised coal dust monitoring protocols to be implemented in all mines, which supports previous calls for tighter health standards in the industry by the mining union, CFMEU.

"We strongly urge that the Australian guidelines be reviewed on the basis of current knowledge of [black lung], in line with international standards," the authors said.

Current standards regulating coal dust exposure vary considerably between states and are "significantly less stringent" than the current US standard.

They have also recommended a comprehensive screening program for workers at risk, which would include a questionnaire, medical imaging and detailed lung function testing to be performed every three years "funded by the employer".

Late last year, CFMEU Queensland district president Stephen Smyth slammed mining companies for allowing health standards to deteriorate and warned that the new cases of black lung could be the tip of the iceberg.

"There is no way to judge the size of the problem affecting coal mine workers in Queensland, or for how long it has been an issue because the regulatory system has broken down and the medical specialists don't exist in Australia to deal with it," Mr Smyth said

Last Reviewed: 20 June 2016

Online doctor

Need health advice right now?See an Australian-registered doctor on your phone