The first confirmed case of black lung disease in a Queensland open cut mine has been revealed.
The diagnosis has sparked widespread concern in the mining industry, with the potentially fatal lung disease thought to be only a risk for underground mine workers.
Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP) was thought to have been eradicated in Australia until last year.
Since then, 15 underground miners have been diagnosed with the disease, caused by breathing in coal dust, and many more are expected to be affected by the disease.
The latest victim, 55-year-old Paul Head, currently works at BHP Billiton’s Goonyella Riverside Mine in central Queensland.
In his 31 years in the mining industry, Mr Head has only worked in open cut mines, and said he has only ever received one chest x-ray when he first started.
CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland District President Stephen Smyth said workers and communities in all states and territories with underground and open cut coal mines were now clearly at risk.
“It’s a myth that miners working in open cut mines are not exposed to high levels of coal dust or at risk of developing irreversible and fatal Black Lung and other dust related diseases,” said Mr Smyth.
“So far, industry and governments have been assuming this problem is isolated to underground mines – we now know this is a false assumption.
“The union is again urging mining companies to immediately address dust levels in all coalmines and keep dust levels below legal limits.”
The emergence of a confirmed case of black lung in an Australian open cut mine follows a 2012 study of surface coal miners in the US found that revealed one in 50 workers in surface coalmines had developed the disease.
Mr Smyth said that due to the similarities between the United States and Australian mining, it is estimated this figure would be comparable in Australia, if not higher.
“The current legal dust exposure limits in Queensland are insufficient and are also not being appropriately monitored to prevent excess dust exposure,” he said.
“Mining companies in Queensland have allowed dust levels in the mines to spike often well above these legal limits with no regard for the health of the miners.
“These operations must immediately start using more effective dust monitoring and control methods to reduce this deadly health risk and at the very least to comply with legal permissible levels.”
Mr Smyth also signaled this new case of black lung disease as a warning to mine operators in other states with open cut coal mines, especially in New South Wales and Victoria.
“This should put all governments on notice – black lung disease is not just a threat to coal miners working in underground mines in Queensland, but to miners at all coalmines across Australia,” he said.
“This also underlines the importance of an industry levy to support a victims’ fund given the national significance of the issue.”
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said the council was concerned to hear of the most recent case of black lung.
“He has worked in the coal mining industry for more than 30 years, and over that time operating conditions in open cut mines have dramatically changed from when workers operated open cab machines, which may have exposed workers to respirable coal dust,” Mr Roche said.
“Today mine workers more typically operate in air-conditioned dust controlled environments.
“All coal mine workers, including open cut workers, undergo a health assessment at least every five years.
“The health and safety of our employees remains the core value of our sector and we would encourage anyone who is concerned to talk to their supervisors and/or seek medical help.”
Mr Head urged other workers to get tested for the condition.
“Beating around the bush saying we haven’t got a dust problem, we haven’t got a dust problem — you ask any of the workers and they’ll tell you, you’ve got a dust problem,” he told ABC News.