A crackdown on coal dust [opinion]

The resurgence of black lung in Queensland, and the discussion around it, is gaining momentum. On top of the review into the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme, we now have had a senate inquiry into the issue of how health reviews can be improved.

And surprisingly, we’re looking to America for guidance on how to manage the black lung situation. A lot of people think of the US as a place where workplace safety standards are below those in Australia, and in many types of workplaces you wouldn’t be far wrong.

Last year at a foundry in Pennsylvania, I watched drill heads and military ordinance manufactured by people covered in soot with little to no PPE. The gaggle of journalists I was among didn’t appear to be very site savvy, nor was the owner of the company who seemed happy to let everyone stand behind an idling forklift at one stage in the tour.

But in terms of identifying early onset of black lung, the US is way ahead of us. The CFMEU maintains Australia needs specially trained radiologists, respiratory disease diagnosis experts who would be the equivalent of the International Labour Organisation’s B-reader standard.

Up until late last year, we in Australia thought black lung was a 19th century disease: Not our problem. We thought we had standards so high that it was impossible to get black lung… obviously not in Queensland.

At present, Queensland’s maximum allowable dust exposure level for a single shift is 3mg per cubic metre of air. The Mining Act references an 8 hour shift, but that maximum allowable level goes for any length of shift, so in a sense that is a single day’s maximum exposure for a coal miner in Queensland.

The coal industry in NSW has attracted some unexpected praise as a result of the negative press in Queensland. In NSW, the allowable coal dust limit in a single shift is 2.5mg per cubic metre of air. Senator Doug Cameron highlighted the collaborative system used in NSW, which sees companies and workers participating in an overarching co-operative process with the Department of Industry, NSW Coal Services, and the CFMEU.

The fact that we have different allowable dust limits between states is a cause for concern. Why should some workers enjoy better protections than others? Both states mine thermal and met coal, both states have underground and surface mining, and both states have the same companies in operation. It is true that different types of coal can have different effects in terms of the speed at which they can cause Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (or CWP), but legislation ought to aim for best practice across the board and not on a case-by-case basis.

Speaking at the Senate Inquiry via phone link on Tuesday, US black lung expert Professor Robert Cohen revealed that effective from February 1 this year, the United States has implemented a national standard for 1.5mg of coal dust per cubic metre.

Do we really want to be known as a country with a coal mining industry that is sub-par against world’s best practice? Do our coal mining companies really pride themselves on being among the safest in the world, or are they just pulling everyone’s chain?

It should also be addressed that there have been some 80,000 cases of CWP identified in the US in the past few decades. Those are some staggering numbers, but don’t forget that’s a nation of 300 million people. But what is really worth considering is that the US has been successfully detecting those cases. We haven’t.

The fact that another Western nation has taken new measures to protect their workers, while we are discovering that our system of health review for coal miners has been letting the early signs of CWP slip through the cracks is a pretty damning indictment.

While the expert review and administration of coal workers’ medical examinations is clearly due for an overhaul, that is not entirely the crux of the problem.

It has been clearly identified that underground coal mines in Queensland have routinely exceeded allowable dust limits. For example, Anglo American’s Grasstree and Grosvenor mines have been named as repeat offenders in terms of exceeding the maximum allowable dust limits, and that is with a limit of 3mg per cubic metre. The CFMEU says both mines have been directed to stop making people work in the returns of active mining panels.  But let’s not single out one company; Vale’s Carborough Downs is also a known offender with sample levels as high as 4.7mg per cubic metre.

Talking to Australian Mining earlier this week, CFMEU health and safety representative Jason Hill said he did not believe most underground coal mines in Queensland were compliant with the dust limits. This means we are allowing the companies to break occupational safety laws. How can this possibly be acceptable?

Let’s just spell this out: A mine should be shut down for any systemic breach of safety until the systems in place have been improved or rectified, let alone for repeat offences. Has this kind of corporate and managerial behaviour been tolerated by the Mines Inspectorate in Queensland?

It’s also worth mentioning that that in the US, they increased the number of dust monitoring tests to be taken at each mine from 30 to 45 times per month. In Queensland this is said to be around 15 times per month. On top of that US legislation stipulates that the tests must be done at 80-100 per cent production levels, not during maintenance and slow periods as is presently allowed in Queensland.

Recently former Department of Mines inspector and mine manager Kevin Clough said he was not surprised by new reports of the disease in the industry, and that he had been “expecting it for years”.

However, Clough chose to focus on the use of PPE in mines as a contributing factor in the resurgence of black lung, in that he was aware that some workers would avoid wearing dust masks.

“You could tell them to wear the mask, and they'd wear them while you were there but then they'd take it off," Clough said.

"Through the years, you'd have a downright argument with the boys: 'You wear the mask'; 'I don't want to wear it'. Ninety per cent of them did [wear dust masks], but you'd always get one or two that would say 'I'm fine, I'm bulletproof’.”

This phenomenon is well known to anyone who works in the trades. There is a cross-section of any large work crew who will eschew the use of PPE because it would constitute some sort of admission of weakness. “Have a spoonful of concrete, mate, it’ll harden you up,” some will joke. But respiratory disease is no joke, and it doesn’t choose its victims on the basis of their toughness or masculinity.

Professor Cohen, in giving evidence to the Senate Inquiry on Tuesday, spoke about dust sensitivity. Dust exposure will not necessarily result in black lung. Some individuals are sensitive to the effects of dust and will develop symptoms, while others do not. But there is no way of knowing who is sensitive until they develop the early signs of CWP.

In my time in mining and construction, I’ve seen the way people avoid PPE. I’ve even done it myself, and it can be heavily influenced by peer pressure. This is observable in larger groups.

The two dustiest environments I ever worked in were very different in terms of the size of work crews. The first was working in minerals sands around air core rigs. We were warned about the hazards of silicosis, and the drillers always wore their masks if conditions were visibly dusty. This was a very small, remote exploration work crew.

The other was a three-month shutdown to replace the furnace floor at the, well, let’s just say the main nickel smelter near Kalgoorlie, back before the boom. The furnace was so choked with nickel dust you only had to walk near the building before getting the taste of a twenty cent piece in your mouth. Inside the air was thick with the sparkling dust as we tore out and replaced the steel framework and copper panels, yet still people would work without wearing their dust masks. Leading hands in particular couldn’t issue clear instructions to their crewmates, and supervised with their masks dangling uselessly off their necks.

Failing to carry a respirator in a belt pouch at all times was a sackable offense anywhere on the site, yet in the heart of the danger zone a blind eye was turned to any breach of this documented OHS policy. This type of thing is going on in job sites all over the country, and I have no doubt it is happening in coal mines today.

It needs to be said that, yes, dust levels need to be maintained at legal levels, and the mines need to be held to account to ensure they meet even Australia’s relaxed standards through engineering controls such as those outlined in the 2010 report from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Best Practices for Dust Control in Coal Mining.

But by the same token, workers need to protect themselves at all costs. It’s not about whether or not your employer makes you wear a dust mask, and it’s not about whether or not someone can hear you clearly. Respirators may be the last line of defence you have to protect your lung health, but that does not mean you shouldn’t have to use it. There are no excuses; we don’t need a special training session to make us aware of the dangers of black lung, or when to use a dust mask. Demand a proper respirator and supply of replacement cartridges; throw out those awful P2 paper masks and shave properly to get a good airtight fit. If you’re serious about being a coal miner, you should be serious about protecting your lungs, if only for the sake of your kids.

It’s obvious that more needs to be done to ensure the early effects of CWP are detected so that miners can make decisions about their health and their lives in the mining industry. But that is not enough. Queensland needs a full examination of the processes and procedures for dust suppression, leading to better legislation for engineering controls that will ensure dust levels are as close to zero as possible, and enforceable sanctions that will encourage companies to employ world’s best practice. This is not an area where red tape needs cutting, quite the opposite. We need a crackdown.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.