BLACK LUNG: Shorten concerned over coal dust level monitoring
OPPOSITION Leader Bill Shorten is "absolutely” open to debate on whether a government or independent body is needed to monitor dust levels across Australian coal mines.
His comments come as an ARM Newsdesk investigation revealed successive Queensland governments were never made aware of an American research paper warning about the resurgence of the deadly black lung disease in the state.
The first confirmed case of black lung in Queensland came in 2015, with 14 cases now confirmed.
The potentially fatal disease is caused by breathing excessive levels of coal dust and for decades was thought to have been eradicated in Australia.
"We thought black lung was a thing to read about in the history books and it's terrible that it's come back,” Mr Shorten said in an exclusive interview with The Morning Bulletin on Tuesday.
Lowering of dust exposure levels should be considered
Although Mr Shorten agrees there is some need for government intervention, he said responsibility ultimately landed with mine operators and initial dust exposure levels.
Mr Shorten said research into lead, benzene and asbestos exposure had shown standards always had to be monitored.
"Initial standards are never good enough and you've always got to improve and improve them,” he said.
"The thing about occupational health and safety is you probably don't need a royal commission to tell you what's gone wrong.
"We already know what's gone wrong.
"What we need is genuine enforcement of standards and improvement of standards.”
Mr Shorten said there were existing powers for the Queensland Government and mining regulators to create a body to monitor dust exposure in mines.
In Queensland, the maximum allowable dust exposure level for a shift is 3mg per cubic metre of air, a figure double the national standard implemented in the United States earlier this year.
'Legitimate' questions to be asked over failure to detect disease
Emerald GP Dr Ewan McPhee, one of more than a dozen doctors in Central Queensland authorised to conduct coal board medical assessments and lung function tests used in the diagnosis, last month said the "whole system has failed coalminers” with a complete review of health monitoring needed.
He spoke to The Morning Bulletin after a Monash University report found formal training should be required for a pool of approved doctors.
Dr McPhee said there had "been a high degree of complacency” when it came to surveillance of the disease, with x-rays and medical files being sent to the Department of Natural Resources and Mines on the assumption they would be assessed and monitored.
However, the Monash University report revealed of 16,463 health assessments received in 2014-15, just under 3000 had been entered into the government database leaving a backlog of approximately 170,000 by the time the review was finalised.
Health assessments of underground coal miners, those most at risk of black lung, accounted for roughly 10% of that 170,000.
As at June 23, 70,000 health assessments had been processed, including 10,000 belonging to underground coalminers, with the rest set to be cleared by the end of the year.
Mr Shorten said questions raised about the government's handling of these health assessments were "legitimate”.
"I wouldn't dismiss that at all,” he said.
"If there's been a backlog and there haven't been proper processes in place, that's a legitimate issue.
"But at the end of the day, who's in control of the work site?
"Isn't it funny that large industry always want deregulation, but when there's a problem with health and safety, it's always someone else's fault?”