Making black lung bite the dust

The resurfacing of black lung in Australia has undoubtedly shaken the mining sector. Since news broke of the first diagnosed case of black lung in May 2015 – thought to have been eradicated 30 years ago – the government, as well as industry, have been scrambling to determine why it came back and find ways to enforce stricter preventative measures for workers.

David Brims, co-founder of VTEX Industries developed a dust suppression technology – the VTEX Venturi – to minimise the chances of black lung. Brims said the technology works in a similar way to bladeless air fans and is much simpler than other systems as it has no moving parts. This also means it does not require constant servicing, and instead just needs to be monitored.

The technology is built from carbon fibre, making it lightweight and durable.

The VTEX Venturi is made of carbon fibre
The VTEX Venturi is made of carbon fibre

“It’s constructed from carbon fibre, so bonuses with that is the weight,” Brims said.

“So [for] anyone that’s handling it, it’s not a two-man lift, it’s a single person lift and the weight’s kept right down.

The technology simplifies underground processes and minimises manual handling as it cuts down on the number of vent tubes required for ventilation. It can be used with air or water –  where roads and underground surfaces can be ‘watered down’ to ease dust problems – and is also capable of injecting stone dust as well as water.

Coal dust, black lung, and finding a solution

There are currently 16 confirmed cases of black lung in Australia, with one of the most recent cases affecting a worker from an open cut mine. This further sent shock waves across the industry, as it was believed to only affect underground workers.

Constant exposure to coal dust is the main cause of the disease and yet dust levels vary between stated. NSW has a maximum level of 2.5mg/m3 of air while QLD’s is higher, at 3mg/m3 of air. Earlier this year the Select Committee on Health’s black lung report recommended all coal companies adopt the lowest Australian level of 2.5mg/m3 until a national standard is implemented, in a bid to tackle the disease.

Following the growing number of workers diagnosed in Queensland, the state government launched a Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis select committee to conduct an inquiry into the resurgence of black lung. Hearings have been held in Brisbane, as well as regional areas including Ipswich, Collinsville, and Mackay throughout November and December, with victims, community members, and experts providing evidence to highlight the impacts of the disease on workers and the community. The committee will give a final report to the Legislative Assembly in April next year.

In terms of more practical efforts to reduce the likelihood of black lung, the Queensland Government is tightening safety across all mines. As of January 1 2017, current measures to protect coal mine workers from the disease will become regulations required by law.

“Government, employers, and unions are tackling the re-emergence of this disease on three fronts – through prevention, early detection, and a safety net for workers,” natural resources and mines minister Anthony Lynham said.

Stricter rules will be enforced over dust management, reporting, and medical assessments for workers. There will also be a tougher stance on medical assessments, whereby current employees who have worked in underground mines are to have respiratory function and chest x-ray tests once every five years and above ground workers must be tested once every 10 years. Tests are also to be given to retiring coal mine workers at their request.

The construction, forestry, mining and energy union (CFMEU) has also been on the bandwagon for tougher action against black lung since it resurfaced, calling for a 10c a tonne compensation levy on all coal produced to support victims of the disease.

“Black Lung sufferers are victims of a deadly disease inflicted on them by employers who failed to ensure a safe workplace for them and by successive state governments that failed them,” CFMEU mining and energy district president Stephen Smyth said.

“Many of them are now being further punished financially because the existing Workers Compensation and Common Law systems don’t adequately cover them.”

The importance of dust management

When initially developing the technology, Brims said they had always focused on dust suppression but found more motivation to hasten the project due to news of black lung.

“In the last 12 months with black lung being highlighted and getting so much attention, it probably motivated [the technology] a bit more,” he said.

“We thought well this might be a great opportunity to actually help and do something.”

The technology can be used across all mines that have ventilation requirements as well as in tunneling. Currently, it is in its manufacturing stages, with sizes ranging from 250mm up to 280 mm.

“It could be used anywhere where there is a dust problem in a confined space,” Brims said.

While the product has not been released commercially as yet, Brims said they have received a lot of interest from prospective buyers and even delivered prototypes for testing.

“We’re looking to involve a mining company or someone like that to help get it out there and advance the product further.”

Brims emphasised the importance of adequate dust management levels and how their technology can be a part of preventing black lung.

“Good dust management is paramount at the moment especially with all the talk and noise around black lung.”

“It’d be interesting to see what sort of impact we can have with this product when they start testing it.

“It’s not probably the be all and end all for black lung but it’ll definitely be an improvement to help keep the dust down in underground mines and tunneling.”