Life Wellbeing Fears black lung disease has spread to open cut coal mines

Fears black lung disease has spread to open cut coal mines

Paul Head
Paul Head is urging all coal mine workers to get tested for black lung disease. Photo: ABC
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There are fears the potentially deadly black lung disease has now spread to the open cut coal mining sector in Queensland.

Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is caused by breathing in coal dust, and was thought to have been eradicated until late last year.

Fifteen underground miners have the condition, but it may no longer be contained to the underground sector of the mining industry.

Paul Head, 55, has worked above ground for his entire career, at BMA’s Goonyella Riverside open cut mine, located near Moranbah.

Recently, after a routine medical check-up, Mr Head was told by his doctor he had black lung disease.

“It shocked me, and I’ve been in shock ever since,” he said.

“Even walking from the car into the mine, all you got to do is look at the cars in the car park and it tells you how much dust’s around.

“Everything you touch, you get black stuff on you.”

Due to Mr Head’s work history, his chest CT scan was sent to black lung experts in the United States and Brisbane.

Both specialists commented in their reports that Mr Head had small opacities in both lungs, consistent with early coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.

The doctors also noted damage in his lungs from smoking cigarettes, but Mr Head said the doctors pointed out differences between the damage on his scans.

Coal dust
Coal dust flies off a conveyor belt at BMA’s open cut mine. Photo: ABC

Mr Head has urged other workers to get tested for the condition.

“I talked about my old mates there, you know, I hope they all go and get checked now too,” Mr Head said.

“Because most of them were smokers too, and they’d probably just be putting it down to smoking, when really it’s not.

“Beating around the bush saying we haven’t got a dust problem, we haven’t got a dust problem – you ask any of the workers and they’ll tell you, you’ve got a dust problem,” he said.

Mining company investigating the cause

BMA says it is too early to say if Mr Head actually has black lung disease.

The company is calling his condition coal mine dust lung disease, an umbrella term for dust-related diseases, which includes coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, as well as other conditions such as silicosis, and emphysema.

In a statement, BMA said it was working with Mr Head’s doctor to better understand his diagnosis, and whether there needed to be any modification to his current role to satisfy dust exposure restrictions that may be part of his health management plan.

A spokesman said dust exposure and controls had vastly improved in the 30 years since Mr Head started working in the industry.

The Queensland Mines Department is investigating the case, but is yet to officially confirm the diagnosis as black lung.

BMA's open-cut mine
BMA’s open-cut mine where Paul Head works. Photo: ABC

Miners union angry

Steve Smyth from the CFMEU says he was concerned about Mr Head’s case.

“For anyone that gets this disease, obviously it changes their life forever,” he said.

“This is the tip of the iceberg, and you’re going to see case after case after case.

“Now it’s in the open cut sector, that’s a real concern, and workers should be alarmed.”


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