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New five-point plan to protect coal miners’ health

Portrait of serious coal miner with his arms crossed against a dark background

The Queensland Government has released a five-point plan to tackle an important health issue for the state’s past and current coal miners.

Natural Resources and Mines Minister and Acting Health Minister Dr Anthony Lynham announced measures to help identify and prevent coal miner’s pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by long-term inhalation of coal dust in underground coal mining operations.

“Protecting the health and safety of workers is a fundamental issue for any Labor Government, and particularly for me as a doctor,” Dr Lynham said.

“We have confirmed five cases of coal miner’s pneumoconiosis in Queensland and I have asked for Queensland Health data on any other possible cases.

“There’s still research to be done on the medical and workplace records, but I suspect there are more cases to come.

“I am determined to get on top of this issue to protect workers now and into the future and to be open and transparent as we progress.”

Dr Lynham outlined action on the five points, which includes a review to improve the existing screening system, where coal mine workers have chest X-rays when they start work, at least every five years, and when they retire.

“Monash University’s Professor Malcolm Sim is heading the review of the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme, which I ordered late last year after the early cases were identified,” Mr Lynham said.

“I expect an interim report by the end of the first quarter and detailed recommendations by the middle of the year. Prof Sim today briefed unions, industry and health officials in an expert reference group established to support his review.”

The second point involves taking action on coal mines exceeding regulated limits on dust levels.

“Coal inspectors are working closely with all of Queensland’s 12 operating underground coal mines, including those with coal dust issues related to longwall mining techniques,” Dr Lynham said.

“As the Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health reported in his latest annual report, the mines inspectorate has audited mining company dust monitoring.

“Of Queensland’s 12 operating underground coal mines, only one is exceeding dust limits now. Eight mines over the past 12 months have been directed to either improve monitoring or bring respirable dust levels back into compliance.

“Directives will remain in place until mines inspectors are satisfied that mines can stay within the regulated level.”

Other points include improving how information is collected and used to ensure cases aren’t missed, investigating regulatory changes as part of the mine safety legislation review already underway, and placing the issue on the agenda for the national council of mining ministers.

“My department and Queensland Health are working on cross-checking their current records, but a priority will also be to make sure this continues into the future so no cases are missed,” Dr Lynham said.

“This will also be part of Professor Sim’s review.

“Our mining safety legislation is in the very early stages of being updated and will include a focus what changes are required to ensure underground coal dust is kept at safe levels,” he said.

Dr Lynham also welcomed the ANZ College of Radiologists’ action in compiling a register of radiologists who can report to an International Labor Organisation (ILO) classification of radiographs of pneumoconiosis.

“Coal mine operators have offered their workers new chest X-rays and specialist analysis since this issue emerged,” he said.

“I know the workers’ representative, the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees’ Union, and the Queensland Resources Council are taking this issue very seriously.

“All the stakeholders on this issue – miners and their families, the unions, employers, and the medical profession – are working together in the best interests of workers past and present.

“I encourage any past coal miner with a concern to discuss it with their general practitioner.”

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AMSJ April 2022