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Return of the black lung to face Senate inquiry

A Senate inquiry into the return of the deadly black lung disease has been announced this week.

Six Queensland coal miners have been diagnosed with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, in recent months.

The disease, caused by breathing in excessive levels of coal dust, was thought to have been eradicated from Australia decades ago.

The Senate select committee on health will hold public hearings next month in Brisbane and Mackay. Committee chairperson senator Deborah O’Neill said they will investigate why the disease has made a comeback.

“There are questions around it and that’s what we will be asking — how has this happened, what’s going on, is there adequate support for people whose diagnosis happens, what about prevention,” Ms O’Neill said, according to a report by ABC.

“We’ll try to look at the evidence and decide what needs further to be done, or if we can actually get a report into the public place fairly quickly.”

CFMEU Mining and Energy division General President Tony Maher said the combination of a national public inquiry and the Queensland Government’s reviews on the issue gave him confidence all governments would work together to come up with a solution to the growing health crisis.

“This national inquiry allows victims and experts to have their say in an open public forum, make submissions and get all the issues out in the open,” Mr Maher said.

“Australia’s coal miners deserve the safest possible conditions at work and if mining companies are not properly managing dust levels that must be addressed by government as an urgent priority.

“We need to make sure workers, including those who have retired or been retrenched,are given the health and support they need to live the most comfortable life possible under the circumstance.

“People like Percy Verrall and his family deserve all the help and support they need at a tough time, just as the victims of asbestos deserved the support they eventually received.”

CFMEU Mining and Energy division General Secretary Andrew Vickers said he expected mining companies and regulators to cooperate with the Senate Inquiry and called on all involved to work cooperatively in the interests of workers affected by the disease.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to come together as a mining community and solve this problem to protect the health of current and future generations of coal miners,” Mr Vickers said.

“We’ve already had six victims diagnosed and our members are concerned right across the country –in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia where mining is a key industry.

“They deserve to know they are safe when they go to work.”

CFMEU Queensland District President Stephen Smyth said the CFMEU had a number of key reforms they were seeking and a national inquiry was an opportunity to look at successful approaches in other jurisdictions and part of the world.

“In Queensland, we’ve seen six cases diagnosed and many more miners are currently being checked. At the end of the Queensland Government’s reviews and this national Public Inquiry, we want Queensland to get world’s best practice regulation and oversight of the disease.

“The current Queensland Government have inherited this problem, but it’s not time to clean up the mess left behind by previous governments.”

The campaign Dust to Dust; Make Black Lung History is seeking the following six clear commitments from Government:

  • New legislation requiring dust levels to be monitored and publicly reportedby an independent statutory body –identifying individual mines by name and company.
  • Ensure suitably qualified “B Readers” review all x-rays taken of coalmine workersand fund a training programme in industry best practises for coal dust controls.
  • Immediately clear the backlog of 100,000 outstanding worker medicalsin Queensland.
  • 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 program to encourage people in mining communities to be checked

The news comes after it was revealed dust levels at Vale’s Carborough Downs coal mine, where three workers have been diagnosed with black lung, were recorded up to six times the legal limit of 2.8mg per cubic metre.

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AMSJ April 2022