The State Government has launched a three-pronged attack on ‘black lung’ disease after a Monash University Review report highlighting the failings of the health screening system for Queensland’s coal workers.
Tougher coal dust controls, new and better testing, and better trained medicos are the backbone of a new regime to protect the health of the state’s 5500 underground coal miners, according to Natural Resources and Mines Minister Dr Anthony Lynham.
The three-pronged attack aimed to prevent new cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, identify existing cases early and provide a safety net for workers with the disease, he said.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said the final report arising from the review of the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme, headed by Monash University’s Professor Malcolm Sim, was very sobering reading.
“Industry, unions, government and of course coal workers were shocked last year with the discovery of multiple cases of pneumoconiosis after almost three decades,” Mr Roche said.
“Industry is appalled at the apparent failure across the spectrum of screening, from lung function tests, chest x-rays through to questions over the qualifications and expertise of those carrying out the testing and screening.”
The past year has seen 11 Queensland miners diagnosed with the disease, which is caused by exposure to high concentrations of coal dust.
“Every worker has a right to go to work and return home to their family, safe and healthy,” Dr Lynham said.
“This has not happened for our underground coal workers, and that’s not good enough.
He said the plan outlined addressed key areas of concern identified by stakeholder and in an independent Monash university review, released today (click here to view the Monash report).
It continues the work he announced in a five-point action plan in January.
“As I have said previously, increased focus on this issue was always expected to result in further workers being diagnosed,” he said.
“The review checked 257 long-term coal workers’ x-rays, and of those, 18 miners have been recommended to undergo extra tests.
“My Department of Natural Resources and Mines is making contact with these miners’ medical advisers so the doctors can advise the miners to have a further test.
“I urge any coal mine worker who has concerns about their health to talk to their general practitioner.”
The three key action areas in the plan unveiled today are:
- Prevention, including stricter dust management and publishing dust levels regularly.
- Early detection through better screening– with strong support from the state’s underground coal mine companies and doctors.
- Safety net for miners with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.
Dr Lynham said miners diagnosed with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – including retired miners – could rely on the workers’ compensation safety net, available via WorkCover Queensland or their employer’s own insurance scheme.
Companies back new protocol
Mr Roche said eight underground coal mining companies had written a joint letter of support to Dr Lynham, backing a new protocol for health screening of coal workers. (See letter here)
“QRC members are sprinting out of the blocks to help to do their part to action the recommendations that are within their powers,” he said.
“Sadly, those companies thought they were doing the right thing for their workers’ health by having them regularly screened – tragically it was that very process that has been found to have repeatedly failed.
“Prevention, through stricter mechanisms to protect workers from dust, and early detection via an overhaul of existing health screening practices and expertise are the beginning.
“Industry is committed to working together to ensure dust levels remain under the appropriate limit.”
Mr Lynham was to be congratulated for initiating a well-considered, comprehensive review using a broad range of experts and overseen by a tri-partite reference group from the spectrum of stakeholders and experts, Mr Roche said.
“This report is a huge wake-up call and will result in essential changes to health screening, dust control and dust monitoring to ensure every one of the thousands of underground coal workers are protected into the future,” Mr Roche said.
Industry was determined to collaborate to share learnings on successful practices for dust management and had committed to hold a dust management workshop in the third quarter of 2016, he said.
Review and research
The Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) at James Cook University (JCU) said the findings from the Monash review presented an opportunity to understand the shortcomings of assessment processes and develop adequate healthcare guidelines.
“The findings from this independent review offer the opportunity to review existing practices, and respond with robust research and develop consistent diagnosis and treatment recommendations,” AITHM director Professor Louis Schofield said.
“In particular, AITHM is well poised to address findings in relation to surveillance, has capacity to provide evidence to support best practice to ensure correct and consistent diagnosis, and is already established with resources invested into occupational health and safety research at Mackay and indeed throughout rural and remote Queensland.”