First confirmed case of black lung from open cut coal mine

A 55-year-old Queensland man has been confirmed as Australia’s first case of black lung from an open cut coal mine.

Paul Head, from BHP’s Goonyella Riverside Mine in QLD’s Bowen Basin, had been working at the open-cut site for 31 years and has never worked underground.

This is the 16th confirmed case of the disease in QLD – the first in a worker from an open cut mine – with all other cases found in underground mine workers.

Head was told of his diagnosis last week after a routine chest x-ray two months ago, the Daily Mercury reports.

“I was totally shocked. I didn’t think it was for real at first,” he said.

He believed black lung could only be contracted by underground mine workers.

“I just thought it was underground, from what I’d heard about it, that’s what everyone thought.”

Head hoped that by telling of his diagnosis he would raise awareness of the risks associated with coal dust inhalation.

Stephen Smyth, CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland district president, said, “It’s a myth that miners working in open cut mines are not exposed to high levels of coal dust or at risk of developing irreversible and fatal lack Lung and other dust related diseases.”

“So far, industry and governments have been assuming this problem is isolated to underground mines – we now know this is a false assumption.”

Smyth went on to say workers and communities in all states and territories with underground and open cut coal mines are “clearly at risk”, calling for stricter dust monitoring.

“The union is again urging mining companies to immediately address dust levels in all coalmines and keep dust levels below legal limits,” he said.

Queensland’s current coal dust limit is 3mg/m3 air – higher than that of NSW (2.5mg/m3) and the US (1.5mg/m3). The Select Committee on Health’s black lung report  released earlier this year recommended coal mining companies adopt the lowest Australian level of 2.5mg/m3 until a national standard is implemented.

A 2012 study of surface coal miners in the US found 1 in 50 workers developed black lung, with Smyth saying due to similarities between the US and Australia’s mining methods, the figure could be comparable in Australia, if not higher.

“The current legal dust exposure limits in Queensland are insufficient and are also not being appropriately monitored to prevent excess dust exposure,” he said.

Additionally, a Melbourne University study questioned whether there was a safe coal dust limit, indicating there is little scientific evidence for the current coal dust exposure regulations.

“We simply do not know at what point exposure to dust triggers lung stiffening, or fibrosis, and we urgently need to address this so we can catch it before it becomes incurable,” Professor Lou Irving, clinical director of the university’s Lung Health Research Centre said.

Outgoing Queensland Resources Council (QRC) chief executive Michael Roche expressed concern over the workers’ diagnosis, highlighting that a review of the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme earlier this year found a failure in the screening system thought to have protected coal mine workers.

“Industry was appalled at the apparent failure across the spectrum of screening, from lung function tests, chest x-rays through to questions over the qualifications and expertise of those carrying out the testing and screening” he said.

“The health and safety of our employees remains the core value of our sector and we would encourage anyone who is concerned to talk to their supervisors and/or seek medical help.”

Smyth added that the latest black lung diagnosis served as a warning to other states with open cut mines.

“This should put all governments on notice – Black Lung disease is not just a threat to coal miners working in underground mines in Queensland, but to miners at all coalmines across Australia.”