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Union says Black Lung has exposed “litany of failings”

As a Senate Select Committee on Health conducts an inquiry into the return of Black Lung disease in Queensland, the CFMEU has made a submission in the hopes of an overhaul of safety practices.

“For decades the Australian coal mining industry has boasted of its elimination of black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP),” the submission says.

“This has been a key part of an occupational health and safety record that Australian mining more broadly has used to portray itself as emblematic of a best practice approach to occupational health and safety. That boast, and that record, has been destroyed with the recent diagnosis of multiple cases of the disease in Queensland which, along with New South Wales, is home for almost all the black coal mining industry.

The union said it hopes the Senate Health Committee, and other inquiries, will result in an overhaul of both Queensland site dust compliance systems and worker health monitoring so that CWP is prevented, and that workers currently suffering CWP are properly diagnosed, treated, compensated and cared for.

“Australia’s public health system – adequately funded – will be an essential element in this effort,” the submission said.

“The recurrence of the disease has exposed a litany of failings in mine site management practices, in regulatory compliance systems, and in the health monitoring system in Queensland. The problems are not replicated in the NSW industry, with its dust monitoring and worker health monitoring overseas by the joint industry body Coal Services Pty Ltd.

“We are seeing multiple systemic failures borne of complacency – as if CWP once eliminated would never return, rather than requiring constant vigilance.”

The union said industry and government vigilance has been lacking, which had lead to a lack of skills for proper diagnosis of the fatal lung disease, a lack of follow-up for workers after retiring from the industry, a failed workers compensation system, and no long-term care for sufferers who are diagnosed with the disease long after working in the mines.

The union made the following recommendations to the inquiry: 

1: World best practice requires that radiologists seeking to make diagnoses of coal workers pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) should be certified as skilled in the use of the ILO Guidelines. Australian State and Federal Governments in conjunction with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists should develop a certification system equivalent to the B Reader scheme in the USA.

2: That the current Review announced by the Queensland Government be found to be a partial response to the CWP crisis and that further measures are required to provide confidence that CWP will be prevented in the future and that, where it is now being diagnosed or may be diagnosed in the future, coal workers will be adequately compensated and cared for.

3: current and revised screening procedures should apply to surface coal workers as much as underground workers. 6

4: that Australian States introduce a system for the lifelong lung monitoring of coal workers whether or not they are currently employed in the industry.

5: No State or federal workers’ compensation system should have any time limit on the making of a claim in respect of CWP.

6: That the Queensland Government establish a Coal Dust Disease Board to provide lifelong assistance for workers diagnosed with CWP.

7: that the Queensland Mines Inspectorate develop and implement a clear compliance and enforcement program, including with respect to dust level regulation, that conveys to all parties that compliance with safety regulation is mandatory and that breaches will result in the ceasing of operations and/or prosecution.

8: there should be improved transparency in the monitoring, compliance and enforcement regime, with full disclosure of the names of mines that have been inspected, dust levels that have been determined, and any recommendations made or compliance action undertaken.

9: That the Queensland Mines Inspectorate establish a standing dust committee (similar to that operated by Coal Services Pty. Ltd. in NSW) with the participation of industry stakeholders including unions for the purpose of achieving best practice dust control in mines.

10: that State coal mine safety regulators take responsibility for dust sampling in coal mines, or at least develop the capacity to supervise dust sampling in coal mines including regular spotchecks to ensure compliance.

11: that existing State coal dust standards be reviewed to ensure they are upgraded to world best practice.

12: that State coal dust sampling requirements be reviewed with the goal of adopting best practice technology including real-time monitoring.

The senate inquiry into the resurgence of Black Lung disease was announced in February, with the Senate Select Committee on Health probing the issue through public hearings in Brisbane and Mackay next week.

Black lung, a respiratory lung disease caused by long-term exposure to fine coal dust particles, was thought to be eradicated 30 years ago until a miner was diagnosed at the end of last year.

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