Black lung is again threatening coal miners’ lives because of regulatory failures, mining industry nonchalance, patchy health monitoring and poor dust control, a new report suggests.
An interim Senate committee report has blamed government and miners for the re-emergence of the disease, which was all but eradicated 30 years ago.
Six cases of black lung, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), have been confirmed in Queensland in the past year and the committee has warned more will follow unless immediate action is taken.
“Those who are literally at the coal face will be handed a death sentence in the form of incurable CWP if the Committee’s recommendations are not fully and immediately acted upon,” the report, released on Thursday, said.
The committee has recommended the federal government establish a national coal dust monitoring group, comprised of representatives from government, mining companies, unions and other stakeholders.
It also wants all states and territories to adopt the national standard for coal dust exposure and Safe Work Australia to review current exposure levels.
Committee chairwoman and Labor senator Deborah O’Neill said black lung could be completely prevented by controlling coal dust.
“Evidence that young men in their 30s have been recently diagnosed with black lung after only 10 years in the work force was heartbreaking to hear,” she said.
Retired miner Percy Verrall, aged in his early 70s, has black lung so severe he can barely walk and told the inquiry he feared younger miners would end up like him.
“They could finish up just the same way as me or be walking around with an oxygen bottle hooked up to them all the time,” he said.
The committee has also recommended that the mining industry, through its representative bodies, create a fund to provide compensation for miners who contract the disease.
Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust over long periods, leaving sufferers with irreversible lung damage.
Unionists and activists have claimed there’s been a black lung “cover-up” and the number of cases could be as high as 1000, although this has been slammed by the industry.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said the six cases of black lung had shocked the industry, as the disease was thought to be eradicated.
Mr Roche said several areas for improvement had already been highlighted in an interim report from a Queensland government review, which the industry would adopt.
“The first step is prevention and if there is non-compliance with dust levels, it’s appropriate that the Mines Inspectorate act and enforce the regulations,” he said.
The Senate committee’s fifth interim report – titled “Black Lung: It has Buggered My Life” in reference to a quote from Mr Verrall – was released on International Workers’ Memorial Day, a time to remember those injured or killed at work.
The final report is due on June 20.