Mining communities throughout Australia are on alert after confirmation of Australia’s first case of Black Lung disease in an open cut coal mine worker at BHP Billiton’s Goonyella Riverside Mine in Central Queensland’s Bowen Basin.

Mr Paul Head reported that in his 31 years working as an open cut coal miner who has never worked underground,  he had only ever  received one chest x-ray when he first started working in the   mines.

CFMEU Mining and Energy Division Queensland District President Stephen Smyth, said workers and communities in all states and territories  with underground and open-cut coal mines were now clearly  at risk.

“It’s a myth that miners working in open cut mines are not exposed to high levels of coal dust or at risk  of developing  irreversible and  fatal Black Lung and other dust related diseases,” said Mr    Smyth.

“So far, industry and governments have  been  assuming this problem is isolated to underground mines – we now know this is a false assumption.

“The union is again urging mining companies to immediately address dust levels in all coalmines and keep dust levels below  legal limits,” Mr  Smyth said.

The emergence of a confirmed case of Black Lung in an Australian open cut mine follows a 2012  study of surface coal miners in the US found that revealed 1-in-50 workers in surface coalmines had developed  coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung.

Mr Smyth said that due to the similarities between the United States and Australian mining, it is estimated this figure would be comparable in Australia,  if not  higher.

“The current legal dust exposure limits in Queensland are insufficient and are also not being appropriately  monitored to  prevent  excess dust exposure.

“Mining companies in Queensland have allowed dust levels in the mines to spike often well above these legal limits with no regard for the health of the   miners.

“These operations must immediately start using more effective dust monitoring and control methods to reduce this deadly health  risk and at the very least to comply with legal  permissible levels,” Mr  Smyth said.

Mr Smyth also signaled this new case of Black Lung disease as warning to mine operators in other states with open cut coal mines, especially in NSW and  Victoria.

“This should put all governments on notice – Black Lung disease is not just a threat to coal miners working  in underground  mines in Queensland, but  to miners at  all coalmines across Australia.

“This also underlines the importance of an industry levy to support a victims’ fund given the national significance of the issue.”

  • This is the 16th officially confirmed case of Black Lung in Queensland coal miners since 2015.
  • This is the first case of Black Lung disease in a miner in an open cut mine. All previous cases have  been recorded in underground mines.
  • As at 30 June 2015 there were 39,128 coal miners in  Australia.1
  • A US study found that 1-in-50 coalminers working in surface mines between 2010-2011 had developed Black Lung  disease.2
  • Based on recent sampling, as many as 1 in 15 coal miners may have  Black Lung  disease.
  • Queensland has higher legal permissible dust limits than the United States or New South Wales:
    • Queensland  – 3mg per cubic metre
    • New South Wales – 2.5mg per cubic metre
    • United States – 1.5mg per cubic metre
  • According to data reported by mining companies themselves, average dust levels have been well above the legal limit.
  • In  2013, 25,000 deaths were attributed  to Black Lung  disease globally.3
  • Black Lung is 100% preventable  and Australia was thought  to have  eradicated the disease.
1) Australian Bureau of Statistics – 8415.0 – Mining Operations, Australia, 2014-15
2) Pneumoconiosis and Advanced Occupational Lung Disease Among Surface
3) Coal worker’s pneumoconisosis: an Australian perspective, The Medical Journal of Australia, August 2016