Black lung senate inquiry opens public hearings

The senate inquiry into Queensland’s resurgence of miners’ pneumoconiosis opens today, the first of two public hearings this week which will examine the state’s mine worker’s health monitoring scheme.

CFMEU health and safety advisor Jason Hill said the union hopes to see new reforms which will ensure the current system of medical assessment, which they perceive as broken, will be repaired.

“The main point [of the inquiry] is to get a system in place so that we can detect early cases of pneumoconiosis, and protect the workers,” he said.

“We need to fix up the failures that have never been fixed up.”

It is expected that the senate inquiry will focus on health assessments, rather than actual dust exposure in coal mines.

Last week Hill said there could be another 1000 undiagnosed black lung sufferers among of working and retired coal miners, an estimate which was extrapolated from the results of x-rays of members and retired members commissioned by the CFMEU.

“From the evidence we’ve gathered, we think 16 per cent of current and retired coal workers could have pneumoconiosis,” Hill said.

Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche wrote off the claims as “irresponsible scaremongering”.

"Without foundation, the union is putting fear into thousands of coal workers on what basis?”

The Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, which is charged with examining all coal miners’ chest x-rays, has admitted that 150,000 workers’ chest x-rays have not been reviewed due to a lack of qualified specialists.

A report from Department of Mines and Energy mining engineer Bruce Ham (published by ABC) stated that around 11.2 per cent of workers in the coal industry experienced chronic respiratory disease compares to 8 per cent of the general population.

Last week recently diagnosed black lung sufferer Keith Stoddard said out of seven x-rays taken of him, only one could be located by the department. Stoddart stopped working at the Grasstree mine four months ago, when shortness of breath led him to seek medical advice and he discovered he only had 50 per cent lung function.

The Senate Inquiry will hear from the CFMEU, Queensland Resources Council and the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, as well as recently diagnosed black lung sufferer Percy Verrall.

According to Hill, there has been industry resistance within certain mines to investigations and taking action on black lung, as well as a culture of fear and intimidation to keep people working in dusty conditions.

“There’s been a lot of resistance with the highlighting of pneumoconiosis,” he said.

“You’ve got a couple of coal mines where the boys raised issues that they felt their health was at risk, and they withdrew themselves from the mines until their x-rays were read by a specialist, and these fellows were threatened to be sacked… and humiliated in front of other people.”

Recently it was shown several mines had been exceeding the levels of dust permissible in coal mines, however the QRC said it was not appropriate to say which mines because they might have since become compliant with the Mines Act.

“With the casualization and contractors working in the industry, management do source blokes to work in dusty areas,” Hill said.

“You’ve got a mine like Grosvenor [Anglo American] that’s had a directive slapped on them, they had blokes working in the returns, Grasstree had blokes working in the returns of active mining panels, which is a dusty environment, it shouldn’t happen…If you’re [a company] going to exceed your dust limit, people shouldn’t have to work anywhere.”

Hill said reports of dust sampling carried out in late February indicated that some mines still were not compliant with acceptable dust levels.

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