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12 October, 2017

Black Lung Disease: Eradicated No Longer

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Black lung disease, once thought to have been eradicated in Queensland, was re-discovered in 2015, hinting at a terrible series of failures on the parts of those various bodies and industries charged with the welfare of miners.

Legislation was passed in August to protect the many Australian miners at risk of suffering from black lung disease. However, according to many, these reforms occurred much too late: Believing the notorious disease to have vanished in Queensland, the system allowed many instances of this illness to be misdiagnosed; and many preventative measures to fall short.

Black lung disease, or Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP), is caused by inhalation of minutely fine particles of coal dust. In its milder form, CWP shows few or zero symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose and to prevent. The disease results in scarring and the formation of nodules inside the lung, which can develop into fibrotic scar tissue. Breathing becomes restricted, eventually leading to respiratory failure, and ultimately death.

In the wake of this disastrous revelation, a multitude of bodies have endeavoured to identify the reason for this drastic shortcoming. The CFMEU observed what they refer to as ‘gross negligence’ with regard to managing the health of workers, citing systematic failures.

Awareness, protective equipment, and technological advances led many to believe that black lung had been eradicated in Queensland, for almost 30 years. This was a cause for grave mismanagement, culminating in tragedy.

A combination of factors conspired to bring about a complete lack in awareness of this fatal disease, exacerbated by an almost total absence of diagnoses.

It was found that health professionals investigating the health of coal workers failed to identify the symptoms of CWP—a mistake compounded by the belief in its eradication, and the fact that the disease takes decades to properly and dangerously manifest itself. Furthermore, chest X-rays taken of coal miners were often of poor quality, occasionally mismanaged, and were being read by people unaware of exactly what they were looking for.

It was also found that certain operators paid insufficient attention to dust levels miners were exposed to, and, in some cases, failed to implement various health and safety procedures in this regard.

Poor communications also contributed to this systematic failure. According to the ABC, Work Cover approved a black lung claim in 2006, but did not alert the Mines Department. The re-identification of black lung took far longer than it realistically should have—it being a malady that should never have been considered ‘eradicated’.

Ultimately, while the blame may fall across a range of services, industries, companies, and individuals, a belief in the eradication of any disease is a certain precursor to its revival—merely by way of ignorance. A certain degree of vigilance is needed when safeguarding against myriad health problems, and to rule out risks is to invite disaster.

What is needed is a compromise across the necessary measures put in place to combat CWP, with a real and exerted effort to educate all parties as to the risks it poses. The parliamentary committee made 68 recommendations, and it is vital that they be embraced by industry and properly implemented. Familiarising all elements across the board with CWP is of great importance; from emphasising the life-saving benefits of certain PPE, to ensuring those health professionals charged with coal miners’ safety are aware of and able to identify symptoms of black lung.

 

For more information, see the following sources:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-07/deadly-lung-malady-s-return-shows-australia-s-struggle-with-coal

https://www.cqnews.com.au/news/long-awaited-black-lung-decision/3218917/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-22/black-lung-interim-report-handed-down-in-queensland-parliament/8376076

http://www.amsj.com.au/news/dont-hold-breath/

 

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