A parliamentary committee looking into the re-emergence of black lung disease in Queensland says it found catastrophic failure, at almost every level, of the regulatory system intended to protect the health and safety of coal workers.
As a result of that failure, 21 Queensland coal miners had now been diagnosed with Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) – an insidious but entirely preventable disease, it said.
The Black Lung, White Lies report was handed down today, containing 68 recommendations.
It noted “the tragic irony” that Queensland, with no apparent diagnosed cases of CWP for many years, had attracted the interest of overseas occupational health experts who sought to study the state’s coal mining industry had no reported cases while the USA had many thousands of cases per year.
Among the recommendations were that a Mine Safety and Health Authority should be established in Mackay with responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of mining and resource industry.
It would be governed by a board of directors, chaired by the Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health, and including representation of:
- coal mine operators
- metalliferous mine operators
- resources transportation and ports, and
- persons independent of the mining industry (including resources transportation and ports).
The report also recommended that the Queensland occupational exposure limit (OEL) for respirable coal dust (including mixed mineral coal mine dust) should immediately be reduced.
The committee said its finding were consistent with Senate Select Committee on Health findings that operators and the QRC had generally displayed a “cavalier attitude… towards dust monitoring and mitigation’ and placed a ‘low priority on their statutory responsibility to provide satisfactory personal protective equipment (PPE) and to ensure workers wear PPE and remove themselves from hazards”.
Operators apparently felt comfortable that the controls in place were sufficient and they engaged in limited review of their efficiency in the absence of health-based indicators to re-affirm the dangers of the respirable dust hazard and highlight shortcomings in mitigation efforts, the report said.
The committee found there was sufficient basis to require underground coal mine workers to undertake full health assessments including spirometry and chest x-ray or other approved imaging every three years.
It considered that all other coal workers, including above-ground mine workers, coal handling and transport workers, and coal-fired power station workers, should be required to undertake full health assessments at least every six years.
Union seeks more aid for victims
The CFMEU welcomed the findings of the Queensland Parliamentary Inquiry, but said there were matters for Government which still needed to be addressed urgently including the need for a Black Lung Victims Fund.
CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland district president Stephen Smyth said the report’s recommendations to lower the legal dust limit and put in place a more independent monitoring and compliance regime were key to ensuring the safety of workers in the future.
“Mining companies have proven they cannot be trusted with self-regulation so anything which removes their responsibilities and puts that in the hands of an independent statutory body is a good thing,” Mr Smyth said.
“We need these reforms implemented as soon as possible in next sitting period and locked down prior to the next state election.”
But he noted that more than 20 Queenslanders had already been diagnosed and the legacy impact of decades of neglecting the issue meant that number was likely to skyrocket over the coming years, meaning a victims’ fund was urgently needed.
“There are a very large number of miners, many of whom are dying right now, who are getting no compensation at the moment because the limitations and shortcomings of the workplace compensation regime,” he said.
DNRM considering recommendations
Natural Resources and Mines Minister Dr Anthony Lynham said the department would consider the committee’s 400-plus page report and its recommendations carefully before responding within the 90-day timeframe.
“I am sure the report will provide further insight as the government continues to implement the reforms recommended by last year’s independent review by Monash University,” he said.
In July last year, Dr Lynham announced a plan with industry, unions and the medical profession to implement reforms recommended in that review.
“This coordinated approach continues to deliver significant improvements to protect our coal mine workers,” Dr Lynham said.
Since July 2016, coal miners’ compulsory chest x-rays have been assessed at least twice; firstly by an Australian radiologist and then by US-based experts. By the end of this year, chest x-rays will be read by qualified B-reader Australian radiologists.
Dr Lynham said that by the end of the year, coal mine workers would have world-class lung function tests, with new standards to set out clear requirements for medical practices conducting the tests.
A training program is to be developed for doctors, with a register to be established of accredited doctors, medical providers and clinics to undertake health examinations, lung function tests, and take and interpret chest x-rays.
Coal companies how provide dust monitoring data to the Mines Inspectorate every three months for publishing online. The first set of data will be published in July.