Black lung ‘catastrophic’ regulatory fail

The second report from the Queensland Parliamentary Inquiry into the resurgence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis has found there to be a ‘catastrophic failure’ in the regulatory system designed to protect mine workers against the disease.

The Inquiry, conducted by the Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis Committee, included 27 public hearings and 15 private hearings, gathering evidence from mine workers and their families, government departments, safety specialists, academics and health and safety staff to report on the resurgence of black lung in the state.

As of May 29, there have been 21 current and former coal mine workers diagnosed with black lung, ranging from 38 to 74 years old.

The committee first tabled an interim report on March 22, 2017, and this latest report highlighted 68 recommendations to further safeguard workers against black lung.

It stated that there has been a “catastrophic failure of the regulatory system that was intended to preserve and protect the health of coal miners”.

“Given the nature of the system breakdown in relation to CWP, it is clear that DNRM’s [Queensland department of natural resources and mines] attempts to amend or improve the system within the limits of the current regulatory structure have been inadequate, resulting in a superficial treatment of some issues,” the report said.

“This piecemeal approach will not be sufficient to restore workers’ trust in the system or in the adequacy of the protection it affords them.”

The first recommendation was for the establishment of a Mine Safety and Health Authority, a statutory authority tasked with ensuring the health and safety of mining and resources workers.

It also outlined several recommendations for the safety authority, calling for it to create a new Coal Workers Health Scheme and have a dedicated health research function to share research on mine worker health.

The report also called for the reduction of Queensland’s coal dust exposure limit from 3mg/m3 of air – Australia’s highest level – down to 1.5mg/m3 of air.

The report’s findings on dust management were similar to the Senate Committee’s findings; while operators felt that current controls were sufficient, they conducted limited reviews on how efficient these controls were in reaffirming the risks of respirable dust.

Workers on the other hand found the success of these control measures were hampered by a range of factors including poor design, a high priority on production over safety concerns, and a reported reluctance of workers to mention the safety concerns.

The report recommended underground and above ground mine operators submit a dust abatement plan and ventilation plan to the commissioner for mine safety and health for approval before beginning operations.

It also reinforced the importance of training to ensure those who conduct chest x-rays and lung function tests do them correctly.

“The committee was shocked to hear evidence in March 2017 that around 20 per cent of new x-rays taken under the health scheme and sent from Queensland to the USA for reading by accredited B-readers continue to be of such poor quality they are unreadable,” the report said.

It also highlighted the overall failure of the coal workers health scheme.

“It is clear there has been widespread systemic failure across all aspects of the health scheme,” the report said.

“Significant further reform is immediately needed.”

The construction, forestry, mining and energy union (CFMEU) welcomed the Inquiry’s findings, particularly the recommendation to reduce the legal coal dust limit.

“This is great news and we look forward to all sides of politics coming in behind these recommendations,” CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland District President Stephen Smyth said.

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