Watch Dr Bob Cohen from the University of Illinois explain mine dust diseases in clear, simple terms.
KEY FACTS ABOUT BLACK LUNG
- Black Lung (or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) is a disease caused by breathing in coal dust, which builds up over a working life in the mines, and cannot escape the lungs.
- Coal dust builds up and can stop the lung from processing oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.
- The dust causes scaring of the lung and inflammation that is visible as masses on an x-ray.
- As the lung struggles to cope with the dust, affected workers may experience shortness of breath and a chronic cough.
- If no steps are taken to cut down on contact with coal dust, Black Lung can worsen to “progressive massive fibrosis” as the masses clump together and cause major damage to lung tissue, potentially leading to heart problems, coughing up black mucus or blood, and ultimately premature death.
- There is no treatment that will cure Black Lung however there are ways of treating the symptoms and making life more comfortable.
- Black Lung is 100% preventable, and Australia was thought to have eradicated the disease.
WHY IS BLACK LUNG BACK?
Dust levels in some coal mines around the country are way above the legal limit. Much like the deadly asbestosis a decade ago, excessive coal dust builds up in the lungs, causing Black Lung disease, which slowly kills its victims.
In the 1960s, a system was set up to monitor health issues affecting coalmine workers, but that system has broken down as governments and businesses fail to limit dust levels or carry out health checks for workers.
There are a number of factors that have led to the re-emergence of this disease:
- Dust monitoring in mines has been left up to individual mining companies without independent checks, which has seen gaming of the system and long breaks in between dust level checks in mines;
- Health and regulatory authorities have become complacent when dealing with the disease, leaving no qualified “B Readers” able to review and identify Black Lung in coalmine workers;
- Without qualified health staff, a backlog of more than 100,000 workers medicals are sitting in a government office unchecked, leaving coalminers with the uncertainty of possibly living with Black Lung;
- Black Lung takes time to set in, and workers who have long worked in the mines don’t receive the support they need to get proper health checks when they leave the workforce.
- With the supposed eradication of Black Lung decades ago, the community has forgotten about the insidious nature of this disease.
Workers have also seen cuts to the coal miner health scheme, increases in longwall mining, and increases in non-union operators, which have all contributed to the re-emergence of Black Lung.
WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
- New legislation requiring dust levels to be monitored and publicly reported by an independent statutory body – identifying individual mines by name and company.
- Ensure suitably qualified “B Readers” review all x-rays taken of coal mine workers and fund a training programme in industry best practises for coal dust controls.
- Immediately clear the backlog of 100,000 outstanding worker medicals.
- Healthcare and screening to be extended into workers’ retirement.
- Identify other at-risk workers by randomly sampling those with 15+ years service in the mining industry and performing checks.
- A community information and outreach program to encourage people in mining communities to be checked.