Calls for tighter coal standards as black lung re-emerges

Three Queensland coal miners have been diagnosed with Black Lung, marking a frightening return of the affliction.

Three cases have been detected in the last three months at Queensland coal mines, two of which are at the Vale-run Carborough Downs mine and a third from near Ipswich.

These are the first new cases of the disease in a number of years, however the potential for its re-emergence was first pointed to in 2010.

The commissioner at the time, Stewart Bell, warned of the potential for the re-emergence of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis which is also known as black lung, amongst miners.

Saying that thousands of American miners have died from the disease, Bell said Australia needs to ensure our safety levels do not slide.

 “We don't want people to take their eye off the ball here and we end up in five years time in a US situation, where we could have problems," he said.

 "The Americans have had thousands of cases of black lung in the last few years.”

Between 2005 and 2006, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), reported that almost nine per cent of miners with 25 or more years of working in coal mines tested positive for black lung, more than doubling since the late 1990s.

And now it has come back to Australia.

"It's appalling that companies and regulatory bodies have let health standards deteriorate, putting the lives of workers at serious risk," CFMEU district president Stephen Smyth said.

"This is a disease that takes hold gradually and we're extremely concerned that recent diagnoses are just the tip of the iceberg.  

"Of great concern is that Australian health and regulatory frameworks are no longer equipped to deal with the disease."  

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact local authorities do not have the qualifications or equipment to properly ascertain the likelihood of black lung, with Smyth adding that US specialists had to be used.

"There is no way to judge the size of the problem affecting coalmine workers in Queensland, or for how long it has been an issue because the regulatory system has broken down and the medical specialists don't exist in Australia to deal with it,” Smyth said.

"There is a real possibility that many more current and ex-mine workers are living and working in Queensland with the disease undiagnosed.”

In order to reverse this situation, the Queensland Mines Safety and Health department has approached the Monash University Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health to review current medial assessment methods.

“This will ensure that early diagnosis for respirable lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis occurs at the screening level,” acting commissioner for Mine Safety and Health Paul Harrison said.

Environmental Justice Australia have also called for stricter air pollution laws on the back of the re-emergence of black lung.

 "Black lung is a 19th century disease; these revelations show how weak and outdated Australia’s air pollution laws really are. How many Australians have to die from air pollution before politicians act?” Phil Hill, a clean air lawyer, stated.

“This illustrates what’s wrong with air pollution laws – state laws have failed to protect these workers from air pollution.

“These coal mines have apparently not been properly supervised by the Queensland government.”