Former mines inspector speaks out about black lung

A former mines manager and inspector has said that changing culture in the coal mining industry was partly to blame for the re-emergence of black lung in Queensland.

Ex-Department of Mines inspector Kevin Clough said in an interview with The Daily Mercury that he was not surprised by new reports of the disease in the industry, and that he had been “expecting it for years”.

Clough said that during his time as a mining manager at mines in NSW and Queensland, he knew of some workers who did not wear appropriate personal protective equipment to protect against inhaling coal dust.

"You could tell them to wear the mask, and they'd wear them while you were there but then they'd take it off," he said.

"Through the years, you'd have a downright argument with the boys: 'You wear the mask'; 'I don't want to wear it'."

"Ninety per cent of them did [wear dust masks], but you'd always get one or two that would say 'I'm fine, I'm bulletproof’.”

Clough said it was that type of refusal to wear PPE that had contributed to the re-emergence of black lung in the industry, but that workers were not the only ones to blame.

"The workers contributed to it, the companies contributed to it and the supervisory staff contributed to it," he said.

Clough, a 42-year veteran of the coal mining industry, said that in his early days he had been made aware of the risks by experienced colleagues.

"If it was too dusty (in an area of the mine), the old fellas would haul you back," he said.

However, Clough suggested that during the 1980s many experienced miners left the industry, and an influx of inexperienced labour were unaware of the risks of coal dust.

According to The Morning Bulletin, coal industry worker Aaron Davis said that in 15 years he had never been told about the risk of developing black lung disease.

"Not that I can recall, in any of our safety meetings, but dust suppression and the issue of dust was always brought up," he said.

Davis (who had worked at Carborough Downs, Oaky Creek No.1, Broadmeadow and Grasstree) said the new cases of black lung and their failed early detection had him and other colleagues wanting re-assessments of their own chest x-rays.

CFMEU Queensland mining division president Steve Smyth has questioned the training of Australian radiographers involved in reading chest x-rays of coal industry workers, suggesting that medical professionals should be trained to the B-reader standard used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the US.

“We certainly have trained and qualified radiologists here who can read x-rays, we don’t dispute that at all, but we don’t have these people accredited to read these x-rays to a B-reader standard,” he said.

Smyth said that the biggest difference between Australia and the US was that B-readers in the US dealt with cases of black lung on a regular basis, and were more experienced and better qualified to identify the disease.

"That has been proven by the number of cases that have all been confirmed in the United States [after Australian X-rays were sent there] or have been confirmed by a lung biopsy, which is a very invasive procedure,” he said.

"It's a terrible state of affairs when here in Queensland in the 21st century we don't' have qualified people that can read these X-rays, it’s a disease that has been around since the 18th and 19th centuries."

Professor Malcolm Sim of Monash University, who is currently heading a review of the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme (CMWHS) said the training of radiologist’s in Australia was not the problem with failed detection.

“What’s become apparent to me is they [radiologists] are not being given the information in many cases, that this person is a mine worker, that it’s part of a screening program, and when you’re looking at an x-ray from a diagnostic point of view, there may be minor changes that you think are not clinically significant, but in terms screening and detection of a particular disease, then you may report in a different way,” he said.

The current review is also concerned with quality control of the respiratory function test, or spirometry.

“For many of these respiratory conditions it’s the one function test that can indicate the first sign of a problem, not necessarily at x-ray,” he said.

Experts are currently involved in review hundreds of coal mine workers’ x-ray lung screenings.

Sim said he wanted the committee to have interim findings and recommendations for changes to the coal industry health program ready to release in the first quarter 2016.

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