Black lung: Employer responsibilities and miners' rights

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.

TOPIC: Asbestos
RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Asbestos diseases

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Jonathan Walsh

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane
Jonathan Walsh is a Senior Associate and the Queensland practice group leader for asbestos law and dust diseases, based in Maurice Blackburn’s Brisbane office. Jonathan is also a Law Society of NSW Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury (Dust Diseases). This additional qualification stands him head and shoulders above most other lawyers who specialise in asbestos law. Graduating from Macquarie University with a Bachelor of Media and Bachelor of Laws, Jonathan joined Maurice Blackburn in 2003 and was admitted to practice in 2005. From 2007 to 2011, Jonathan worked at a major Australian commercial law firm and then a major Australian financial institution as in-house counsel, before returning to Maurice Blackburn in mid-2011. “From an early age the sense of injustice I felt when people suffered at the hands of powerful individuals and companies was transformational,” says Jonathan. “As I grew older, I started to really identify with stories of those brave enough to become advocates for those who were not able to do that for themselves. And these experiences lead me to study law.” Jonathan is a hard-working, thorough and technically astute lawyer, who channels his compassion for his clients into achieving the best possible outcomes for them. He finds the most rewarding aspect of his job is to be able to bring a measure of justice to clients who have been catastrophically wronged by corporate and governmental negligence. Jonathan particularly understands that his clients are in need of more than compensation, and strives to ensure that they obtain as much information and support as possible. “Asbestos disease sufferers are especially vulnerable at the time when they require legal services, and I take great pride and reward in navigating them through the often complex legal process with precision and compassion and, ultimately, securing them an award of compensation which is just and fair. “My clients in each of their own unique and special way inspire me and motivate me to do the absolute best for them. A large proportion of my clients are facing certain death at the time when I first speak to or meet them. And, to anybody in such a situation, you would forgive them for being angry, upset and at their wits end. However, in my experience, clients in these situations are remarkably stoic, positive, resolute and incredibly inspirational and they fortify within me my duty to do my absolute best to deliver them a result that is just and fair.” Much of Jonathan’s time as a lawyer isn’t spent behind a desk. He also visits clients at home or in hospital, and his determination to provide the best advice and support to his clients also sees him working closely with a range of support groups. Accreditations and memberships Law Society of NSW Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury (Dust Diseases) Law Society of NSW member Australian Law Association member Lung Foundation of Australia member Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand member Clinical Oncology Society of Australia member American Association for Justice member ...

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