Black lung: The proof we have failed our coal miners
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Black lung: The proof we have failed our coal miners

This is what failure looks like. Men coughing their lungs out in dark, viscous blots of toxic meat-rot.

It's called black lung for good reason and it should be a footnote in the history of a modern state that grew wealthy on coal mining. But as many as 800 miners could be looking at a diagnosis of coal workers' pneumoconiosis.

The Department of Natural Resources and Mines failed in its protection of coal miners.

The Department of Natural Resources and Mines failed in its protection of coal miners.

Photo: Greg Newington

Black lung – so called because when they finally succumb to the disease, which is entirely preventable, their lungs will look like shrivelled wet bags of sump oil – was a disease of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the years before unions and governments forced mine owners to address the danger of coal dust, the men who worked underground and even in open-cut mines, did so in a thick soup of dust, not just from coal but also silica, iron ore and other dangerous particulates.

Silica dust is especially hazardous, slipping in past poorly sealed masks, if they are even worn, breezing past the body's own defences, and hitting the lungs like a massed charge of old-fashioned lancers, spearing into the lung cells.

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Once in the lungs, the dust never leaves. The body has no way of flushing it out, and over the following years it will tear its host apart.

Mines in Queensland are not unregulated free-for-alls like India or America. But yesterday's parliamentary committee report was a bipartisan indictment of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, which oversees the industry, and the Health Surveillance Unit, which has specific responsibility for monitoring the workforce.

"From its establishment," writes the committee, "the HSU failed to undertake any actual health surveillance. It served as nothing more than a storage unit for miners' chest X-rays and health records."

It wasn't even much of a storage unit. The HSU literally tossed years' worth of records into a janitor's cupboard next to a toilet and forgot about them. The unit palmed off the job of identifying problems, errors or trends in miners' health onto mine owners and their workers.

It's seemingly not even a case of blaming profit-seeking mine owners uncaring about the health of their workers. They had every reason to expect the department and its surveillance unit would do the very job it exists for. Black lung wasn't on anybody's radar until it was in their lungs again.

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There are always larger questions when coal is involved, of course. The miners are not the only ones who will eventually feel its ill effect.

But if governments are going to insist on propping up a dying industry, the least they could do is enforce their own regulatory schemes to minimise the death rate at the actual coal face.

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