Black Lung Disease in Queensland
1st Apr 2016
A recent 7.30 report program on the ABC suggests that as many as 1,000 Queensland Coalminers could have coalminer's pneumoconiosis or, as it is more commonly known; black lung. This dangerous and often deadly lung disease is of serious concern for workers and their families in this state.
For many years, the general public throughout Australia, and in particular Queensland, have been persuaded of the view that black lung disease had been virtually eradicated. However, over the last 6 to 12 months, at least 6 cases have been diagnosed in Queensland alone.
Some of these sufferers/victims worked at Anglo-American Grasstree Mine, near Middlemount in Central Queensland. The Queensland Coal Mining Union has indicated that potentially up to 1,000 workers could have black lung.
Black lung disease is a lung condition that is caused by extensive exposure to coal dust. It is an occupational disease, usually limited to workers exposed to coal dust. It is widely accepted that only through the exposure to considerable quantities of coal dust over an extended period of time can the symptoms of black lung disease develop.
Miners and those working directly with coal dust are typically the most exposed to risk of coalminer's pneumoconiosis. As Safe Work Australia states, ‘Miners have the most obvious risk of inhaling hazardous amounts of dust, depending on how effective the mine’s ventilation and its method of suppression of dust.’
Similar to other occupational respiratory diseases, such as silicosis and asbestos related conditions, black lung symptoms can often present many years after exposure. In the case of black lung, it can emerge as late as 15 years after the exposure to coal dust ceases.
Inhaling large amounts of very fine particles in an industrial setting can result in various forms of lung diseases. Unsurprisingly, the type of lung disease created is determined by the substance to which the individual is exposed. For example, workers using silica often develop silicosis. Those exposed to asbestos fibres develop asbestosis or other forms of asbestos related diseases. Coalminers too, exposed to coal dust often develop what is medically termed as pneumoconiosis.
There are two types of black lung disease, simple and complicated. The simple black lung disease has relatively few symptoms. The prognosis is often regarded as very good. This type is also referred to as CWP, or coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. This type can, however, worsen to the complicated type – referred to as progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). This type can be fatal, as it leads to difficulties breathing, and a gradual increase in shortness of breath.
As far as occupational diseases go, this one is as deadly as those diseases already more familiar to us.
As noted in the 7.30 report, since 1993 all Queensland coalminers are required to undergo X-rays prior to employment with mining companies so as to monitor the possible deterioration of their lungs in an occupational setting. Once employed, the mining companies are required to arrange follow-up examinations at least once every five years thereafter. The X-rays are then required to be sent to the Department of Mines for review.
Despite the fact that there are now a number of reported cases of workers being diagnosed with this disease, what is sadly even more concerning is that the Queensland government department has admitted that as many as 150,000 X-Rays remain un-entered into the government database.
In some cases, radiology has even been lost by the department.
As noted by the ABC, a survey carried out in 1984 identified 75 cases of black lung among the state’s underground coal miners. There’s been no evidence whatsoever that the government has followed up these individuals or reported back to the mining companies responsible for the exposures. The fact is, they’ve been forgotten.
In Queensland, workers do have rights to recover compensation from dust-related diseases either at a statutory level or in a common law claim for negligence against their employer. The most appropriate course of action will often depend on the severity of the disease, and the overall impact the disease is having on the claimant. The Queensland government may therefore have a case to answer for if a worker’s condition has severely deteriorated partly due to the government’s inaction on this issue.
Workers who have been exposed in an occupational setting should be obtaining regular medical advice from their GP, including CT scans to determine diagnosis.
While compensation may do little to ease the pain of a diagnosis, it can provide some immediate financial security to sufferers and their families.
Carl Hughes is a Senior Associate at Gouldson Legal, a Queensland personal injury plaintiff litigation firm. He has been acknowledged as one of Brisbane’s leading asbestos compensation lawyers, having spent the vast majority of his career working on personal injuries claims including dust diseases claims for sufferers throughout Queensland.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).