Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis, also known as Black Lung disease, was thought to have been eradicated in Australia over 20 years ago, but now eight coal mine workers from Queensland have been diagnosed with an advanced stage of the disease and it is suspected that hundreds more may have it at an earlier stage.
Black Lung is a chronic, irreversible lung disease caused by inhalation of coal dust into the space in the lungs where gas exchange (inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide) takes place. The body has no way of removing the particles and over time the dust builds up causing inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue.
This inflammation and scarring causes debilitating, life threatening symptoms. These can include shortness of breath, a chronic cough, coughing up black lumps, high blood pressure and other heart problems. It can also lead to increased susceptibility to autoimmune conditions and premature death.
Black Lung cannot be cured and the only way to prevent the disease from developing is to prevent occupational exposure to the coal dust. Engineering controls such as dust suppression systems combined with ventilation systems can limit workers exposure to coal dust to safe levels. But because over exposure is not immediately obvious engineering controls must be coupled with thorough and regular medical checks.
In the 1970s trade unions in the developed world won the introduction of stringent control measures. This meant that the disease in those countries had been almost entirely eradicated. The recent increases in Australia, the US and elsewhere are the result of overexposure to coal dust due to a relaxation in dust control regimes.
The Queensland Resource Council for example admitted that it became complacent with regulations because no new cases of Black Lung had been reported in decades. At the same time mining companies have a vested interest in not maintaining stringent occupational health and safety standards as the costs associated with the measures eat into their profits.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and medical experts are calling for a national, independent medical body to be established to monitor the health of coal mine workers. They are calling for the body to be set up by the federal government but funded by mining companies. Medical staff would not be appointed by the mining companies and the companies would not have access to the records, which would be kept for 30 years.
There is no doubt that mining companies can afford to pay for such measures. In 2015 BHP Billiton alone had revenues of $61.2 billion and an annual profit of $2.62 billion. BHP is just one of many companies currently mining for coal in Australia.
Lifesaving occupational health and safety reforms have been fought for and won by workers organised in unions in the past and they can be won again. We can not allow profits to be put ahead of the safety and livelihoods of working people.
That the CFMEU is launching a campaign around this issue is a positive step. It is unlikely however that the mining companies will meet the union’s demands without a fight. Co-ordinated industrial action targeting the whole sector is the only way to force the mining companies to implement and maintain the reforms.
We must recognise however that for-profit mining companies will jump at any opportunity to wind back safety measures. We can not have a situation where in 30 years time we are back in the same position where workers are once again dying of preventable diseases.
Only by bringing the mining industry into public hands, and under democratic control, could we remove the profit motive and ensure once and for all that the health and safety of workers, the protection of the environment and first nations land rights are prioritised. Public ownership of the sector would also ensure that the wealth created is used for the benefit of all.
By Meredith Jacka