Long-awaited black lung decision

The parliamentary committee that held hearings in towns in the Central Highlands.
The parliamentary committee that held hearings in towns in the Central Highlands. Jessica Dorey

MINERS suffering black lung disease will have access to significant workers' compensation after long-awaited legislation was passed last week, however the system that allowed the potentially fatal illness to be misdiagnosed and undiagnosed for many years has been slammed as "a catastrophic failure”.

CFMEU district president Stephen Smyth said yesterday there was "gross negligence” in the handling of coal workers' health which was "totally unacceptable”.

"We want to make sure we fix it forever, but there have so many systematic failures,” he said.

Mr Smyth said that while the industry might provide a safe workplace on a "day-to-day” basis, "the issue of black lung should shake the foundations of how we look at health and safety”.

The re-detection of black lung disease, or Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis (CWP), in 2015 sparked the formation of a parliamentary committee into how regulatory and monitoring systems failed, and how to protect workers in the future.

Since November 2015, there have been 24 confirmed cases (with ages ranging from 38 to 73, and an average age of 56) of black lung, a disease caused solely by prolonged exposure to coal mine dust, in Queensland.

The Black Lung, White Lies report is critical of the treatment of coal workers.

Evidence suggests massive systemic failure across the regulatory and health systems intended to protect coal industry workers, with The Monash Review of Respiratory Component of the Coal Mine Workers' Health Scheme finding last year that people believed the disease had been eradicated in Queensland because there had been no new cases of CWP for many years prior to 2015.

The review found serious shortcomings in the practices of health professionals charged with monitoring the health of coal workers in regard to the diagnosis, notification and treatment of the disease.

The committee has also found that mine operators have contributed to this failure through inadequate attention to dust surveillance.

Mr Smyth said he believed the 68 recommendations made by the select committee needed to be implemented; the State Government review period is finished and a further response is due this week.

Mr Smyth, who hoped independent dust monitoring would be made mandatory, said it was recently found that four underground coal mines had not complied with new legislation requiring the mines to report on their dust monitoring.

These mines did not supply the reports, and were told not to do it again, a result Mr Smyth said was not harsh enough and would not act as deterrent.

While more wide-ranging legislation is expected to follow, last week's Worker's Compensation and Rehabilitation (Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill allows for those who have retired or left the coal mining industry to receive funding for medical examinations to encourage more testing.

It will also ensure those diagnosed with CWP can apply to reopen a workers' compensation claim to access further benefits and offer rehabilitation support to help workers back into alternative employment.

Mr Smyth said recommendations included improving the standard of x-rays and their analysis and introducing new breathing tests.

New recommendations would require training from December this year by experts in the US working with Australian medical teams.

"Currently, all our x-rays are sent to the US to be dual-read - read in Australia and then the US - and then if a diagnosis is required it goes to a respiratory specialist in Brisbane.”

He said there would be a transition stage, incorporating auditing and mentoring from America, followed by a full implementation in Australia.

"We need to restore the faith of the workers. Miners had a faith in the system as being tried and tested when it hasn't been.”

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