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Black lung: report finds "major system failures" in mining industry

Major failures in the screening of miners for the fatal “black lung” disease have meant that cases have gone undetected for years, it has now been confirmed. 

Last year, the Queensland coal mining industry came under scrutiny after the first cases of black lung in Australia in over 30 years were reported. Now the Queensland Government says that another 18 suspected cases of the coal-related disease have been identified, in addition to the 11 already known. 

The statement coincided with the release of a report conducted by Monash University Professor Malcolm Sim which highlights systems failures and incompetence by inadequately trained radiographers that allowed sick miners to slip through the screening net. 

The ABC reports the example of Steve Mellor, a 39-year-old Queensland coal miner recently diagnosed with black lung. He has had the condition for almost nine years, despite being given the all-clear in regular company medical checks to continue working underground. 

In fact of the 18 new cases reported, only two had had positive results from their screening, while 13 had been reported as negative and a further three reports could not be found when results were recently reviewed by US experts.

The Monash report found not only a lack of local specialist staff able to “read” screening results accurately, but a failure in screening methods themselves.

Tests were conducted by unqualified staff, with nearly half the tests reviewed so poorly executed they were meaningless.

As for the testing equipment, the review found that two thirds of the machines used to conduct the lung function tests had not been calibrated this year.

But the failures of the screening system is only one part of the story. The key issue is dust levels in the mines and the way they are regulated –or not.

Queensland mines have higher legal dust limits (3mg per cubic metre) compared to international best practice, to New South Wales (2.5mg per cubic metre), and even to the United States (1.5mg per cubic metre). 

To make matter worse, the system relies on self-regulation, with mining companies themselves responsible for testing and compliance in relation to dust levels.

The Mining and Energy Division of the CFMEU has called for an end to self-regulation and for a lowering of allowable dust levels.

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