Coal dust: more than just black lung

1 February 2018
In late 2015, Queensland was rocked by news of the re-emergence of black lung, a disease that was wrongly assumed by many, including the Mines Department and Queensland Health, to have disappeared.  Tragically, however, it is a disease that never went away.

Since the first of the new black lung cases being reported in late 2015, a total of 21 cases have been confirmed with many more suspected cases currently under investigation.  It will of course never be known how many coal workers died from misdiagnosed black lung in the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two cases from New South Wales have now been reported with more expected to follow.

The Queensland State Government responded to community outrage and ordered a parliamentary inquiry into the disease.  The resulting report, entitled “Black Lung, White Lies” found there had been “a catastrophic failure at almost every level of the regulatory system” designed to protect the health of coal workers in Queensland.

What also emerged out of the inquiry, but is still a surprise to many, is that a range of other diseases suffered by many former coal workers and miners can be caused by exposure to coal and other dusts.

These dust diseases include: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), emphysema, chronic bronchitis and adult onset asthma. 

The challenge posed by these diseases is that they are most commonly seen in current or former smokers.  As a consequence, most doctors who aren’t aware of a person’s work history will simply conclude that their patients condition was caused by smoking.

However, the medical experts now tell us is that high levels of cumulative exposure to coal and other mining dusts can be equally as causative of these conditions as many years of smoking.

We therefore strongly encourage any current or former coal worker or miner who has been diagnosed with COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or adult onset asthma to inform their GP about their work history and consider a referral to a specialist respiratory or thoracic physician.  It may be the case, as it has been for many of our clients, that the GP or specialist will determine that their patients disease was caused or contributed to by dust exposure.   

If that connection is made, the person may be entitled to financial compensation for their disease from either a workers’ compensation insurer or their employer.

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