For many people, black lung may be a disease you hear about but rarely encounter. Unfortunately, people working in the mining industry have to deal with this very real risk every day.
What is black lung disease?
Black lung disease, also known as coal worker's pneumoconiosis or simply ‘black lung’, is a scarring of the lung which occurs after prolonged exposure to coal and related mining dust. People with the disease have lungs that look black instead of pink.
When coal dust is inhaled gradually and repeatedly, it builds up and leads to lung inflammation and fibrosis. Not only can this create severe respiratory problems, but in serious cases it can, unfortunately, cause premature death.
Who’s at risk of developing black lung?
Not every coal worker is at risk of contracting black lung, and certainly, exposure does not guarantee a diagnosis.
The greater your exposure to coal dust, the greater the likelihood of contracting black lung over time – although this does change from person to person. Some people are more likely than others to contract black lung in a short period of time, but generally, the likelihood of diagnosis rises with the rate of exposure.
Additionally, specialists point out that black lung doesn’t always get progressively worse after diagnosis – as long as there is no more exposure.
Black lung disease has always been a risk of working in and around mines. Even today, despite the use of sophisticated safety equipment, some workers are still being exposed to coal dust and diagnosed with serious health conditions.
Employers’ health and safety obligations
Mining companies have a primary obligation to protect workers’ health and safety, including providing safeguards against contracting black lung. They should do this by ensuring mines are well ventilated, using dust extraction equipment and providing safety equipment for workers including effective dust masks.
Employers must ensure that coal workers are screened regularly and be tested, firstly, whether they have the medical capacity to work in a mine and, secondly, whether they have developed black lung.
Unfortunately, the recent Senate inquiry into the Queensland mining industry found there was a whole system failure, including a breakdown in procedures regarding the identification of black lung. Specifically, some medical officers were checking X-rays without the proper training to detect black lung.
The Queensland Parliament is also currently looking the issue of black lung, including exploring if current legislative and regulatory frameworks to protect workers are adequate. Maurice Blackburn has made a submission to this inquiry.
A further issue is that new equipment being used for mining has been found to create a finer type of dust, which is easier to inhale.
These developments have been responsible for a rise in the number of black lung cases in Australia – although it’s important to note there has likely been under-reporting in the past.
Mineworkers’ rights and responsibilities
Miners should remain vigilant about their own health and safety. Workers should inform their superiors of any legitimate concerns about exposures in the workplace and lack of safety equipment. Workers’ advocacy groups or unions should also be informed if there are OHS issues.
If a mineworker does contract black lung, there are a range of issues to consider, including how they plan to deal with a potential lack of earning capacity going forward. Depending on the severity of the impairment, some workers may be barred from working in a mine again due to their health issues.