Prior to 2015, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (commonly referred to as black lung disease) was thought to be ‘extinct’ amongst the Australian workforce. It was in fact kept at arm’s length through regulation and safety standards, recently found to have been sidestepped by the Queensland mining industry.

Between 2015 and early 2016, 11 cases of black lung disease surfaced amongst Queensland coal workers’. This re-emergence prompted a Senate inquiry into the regulations surrounding the coal mining industry, the results of which were delivered in its report in April 2016, titled “Black Lung: It has buggered my life.” Alarmingly, in a recent report issued by Monash University, a further 18 likely cases have since been identified.  The most recent known worker diagnosed with black lung disease is a 39 year old worker who worked in coal mines throughout Queensland and New South Wales.

What is black lung disease?

Black lung disease is caused by breathing in excessive levels of coal dust. This dust builds up in the lungs of coal miners and has nowhere to go.  Coal miners suffering from this disease develop shortness of breath, a severe cough and feel pressure on their chest.  If the worker continues to be exposed to high levels of coal dust, black lung can develop into progressive massive fibrosis, causing major damage to the lungs and the heart.  Workers’ have been found to cough up black sputum or blood and suffer a premature death.  Most importantly, black lung disease is 100% preventable in Australia.

Australia’s Mining Industry

Despite the rise of the green and renewable sources of energy, according to the recent report released by the Senate Select Committee on Health, Australia is currently the fifth largest producer of coal in the world. Whilst the majority of Australian Coal is mined in Queensland and New South Wales, there are other black coal mines in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, which makes the return of black lung disease a national issue.

Black Lung: It has buggered my life

The submissions made by stakeholders in the industry into the Senate enquiry highlighted accusations against the Queensland coal industry with respect to:

“Failings in mine site management practices, in regulatory compliance systems, and in the health monitoring system in QLD.”

Of significance, Queensland has had no system for following up with coal workers’ once they are no longer in the industry. Their health screening process revolved around a ‘fitness for duty’ as opposed to the workers’ health.  Further, the mine operators in Queensland were found to have been responsible for monitoring the level of coal dust within a mine, a practice which has delivered poor compliance with safety standards through self-regulation.

Thankfully such problems are not currently replicated in the New South Wales coal industry, with dust monitoring overseen by the joint industry body Coal Services Pty Ltd (“Coal Services”).  However, it is important that if you are/were a New South Wales coal worker and you experience any symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or a persistent cough, that you get in touch with Coal Services, who will arrange the appropriate medical tests.  Similarly, if you are/were a Queensland coal miner we suggest you speak to your current/former employer and/or your union to arrange such medical tests.

A preventable disease that causes premature death in the Australian workforce requires the attention and resources of the Government and industry stakeholders to put a stop to it. However, if you are diagnosed with black lung disease and want to explore your legal entitlements, contact Turner Freeman Lawyers so one of our dust diseases specialists can provide you with advice.