Hazelwood mine fire responsible for health problems

A mobile plant operator who worked at the Hazelwood mine fire to help extinguish the blaze has suffered a rapid decline in health due to lung disease  and has been denied compensation.

David Briggs was employed by RTL Mining and Earthworks last year, operating an excavator to dig burning coal for stockpiling and management.

Briggs told Fairfax he was not supplied with any breathing apparatus while working long hours to fight the blaze, despite firefighters using such equipment.

"There was no supplied mask, there was never any mention of it," Briggs said.

Briggs said he was healthy prior to his involvement with the Hazelwood fires, evidenced by pre-employment medical testing of his lung capacity, which was above average for his age of 54.

"They [RTL Mining and Earthworks] need to recognise that this was an incredibly unsafe environment," Briggs said.

"My condition can only deteriorate."

Briggs was hospitalised for five weeks in January this year, ten months after the Hazelwood fire in 2014.

He has been diagnosed with a pulmonary fibrosis, and is now in preparation for a lung transplant, taking anti-rejection drugs.

Maurice Blackburn principal Gino Andrieri has taken on Briggs’ case, and said the firm was investigating his claim.

"We are seeking information about his medical condition from his treating doctors," he said.

"It is important that anyone who believes they have an illness or symptoms following the fire at Hazlewood coal mine should seek medical help as soon as possible so their symptoms can be monitored and treated accordingly."

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry was reopened in May this year, incorporating a 20 year study by the Victorian Department of Health and Monash University into the potential health impacts of the fire.

The inquiry is expected to deliver its recommendations on minimising fire risk at the Anglesea coal mine site by August 31.

In December the inquiry will deliver a report on the health effects of the 2014 coal mine fire and measures to improve health in the Latrobe Valley, and will deliver its findings into coal mine rehabilitation in March 2016.

Victorian minister for health Jill Hennessy said the Labor government was funding new equipment and a new health clinic, as well as the long term study.

“The community deserves answers. They deserve to know whether the fire contributed to an increase in deaths, and what impact the fire may have had on their health,” she said.

Image: Keith Pakenham, CFA

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