Australia has seen a rise in the number of patients with the black lung disease or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, which was thought to have been eradicated in the country 30 years ago. In July 2016 alone, 18 new cases were diagnosed with the potentially life-threatening disease.
Last July, the Queensland government blamed systemic failures and complacency for the re-emergence of the disease.
Professor Malcolm Sim, an occupational medicine expert from Monash University, was not surprised that the disease re-emerged in Queensland last year. However, he lamented that the system to protect workers is poorly managed.
“I think there was a sense that it had gone, it had disappeared, it was for historical interest only,” points out Professor Sim. “For those of us who work in the industry, we were not surprised this could have still been out there. These things never go away.”
The professor adds that spirometry testing, which assesses a person’s lung capacity and function to determine diseases such as asthma and black lung disease, is not performed properly. Instead of conducting the test in laboratories or healthcare facilities by a credible technician, it was only being performed in offices. In many cases, poorly trained radiographers can also let sick miners slip through.
Nevertheless, Sim acknowledged the effort that the government, unions, medical professionals and the industry has put in an attempt to solve the problem. Sim adds that he had spoken to several CEOs of mining companies during a conference, and they were very receptive to the dismal report. They seem to understand how crucial it is to cooperate with authorities.
Coal mining companies insist their workers have their x-rays checked if the last time they had one was two years ago. Many have also suggested introducing a screening program that not only includes current workers but retired miners as well.