Carborough Downs miners battle old foe black lung
AN UNDERGROUND miner diagnosed with black lung could have learnt several years earlier he had the disease if a chest x-ray he had taken was read correctly.
The x-ray was taken as part of the pre-employment coal board medical process before he was to begin work at Vale's Carborough Downs coal mine in central Queensland.
He is one of six people who have been diagnosed with the irreversible lung disease, formally known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, and one of two confirmed cases of black lung recently diagnosed at the mine.
Both men from Carborough Downs are understood to have worked at mines in the United Kingdom.
Instead of learning he had the potentially debilitating illness and seeking medical help, he unknowingly continued his long-term career working in the dust, underground.
But an Australian colleague of the two men has praised the mine they work at as one of the state's safest.
The senior miner, who asked to remain anonymous, said Carborough Downs was most likely leading the pack in mitigating and controlling the fine dust particles so threatening to people's lungs.
The miner said safety measures had ramped up further since the men were diagnosed last year and the company was focussed on its employees' safety rather than production.
A Vale Australia spokesman said the company was continuing to work tirelessly to ensure the safety of all of its employees at the underground mine.
"We have had extensive consultation with the workforce and mines inspectorate since the two employees diagnosed in 2015, and have ensured the safety of these two employees by placing them in roles not susceptible to dust exposure," he said.
"In addition we have proactively instigated a medical investigation including a review of over 200 underground employees x-rays which have been sent to a qualified 'B' reader in the USA."
'B' readers are US physicians specially trained to study chest x-rays for signs of pneumoconioses using the International Labour Office classification system.
The miner is waiting for the all-clear himself and remains concerned there will be many more black lung cases.
He said when he began working in the industry at a different mine two decades ago, there was very little concern for black lung because it was believed to have been eradicated.
He admitted he and many others rarely wore the nose and mouth covering respirators underground back then.
"If I knew what I did right now I would have done things differently."
He said the industry needed cultural change, with some miners still not wearing respirators despite directions.
"It's like trying to teach an old dog new tricks... it's not going to happen."
He said miners also needed to keep out of dusty areas, explaining there could often be a mere metre's difference between a space with acceptable dust levels and dangerous levels.
In August, Carborough Downs introduced six more dust monitors to provide instantaneous measurements, and plans to more than double the samples it took in 2015.
From 40 dust samples in 2010, the company plans to take 190 in 2016.
It already uses dust suppression, such as water sprinklers to hose down dust particles, and ventilation systems.
"The company has also invested in significant dust mitigation measures in addition to those already existing at the mine," the Vale Australia spokesman said.
The miner believes although mining technology, machines and subsequently production have skyrocketed, the technology to keep miners safe in more dusty environments has not.
He said the Department of Natural Resources and Mines and Carborough Downs were frantically trying to measure and regulate dust levels in the wake of the diagnoses.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said five of the men diagnosed had launched workers' compensation claims.
And the anonymous miner said suing was likely on a lot of people's minds.
"But who's to blame - the people who read the x-rays, the mines department or companies?"
Underground efforts against the black lung
SPARKLING in the blackness 180m below ground level is glittering coal dust - coating the monstrous hydraulic jacks Carborough Downs coal mine uses to keep miners safe from a roof collapse.
Yet the machinery used cannot shelter them from the unseen dust that can blacken their lungs and their future.
Only now the mining community and medical professionals are learning the disease they believed was dead and buried is continually being dug up.
To combat this, miners' main personal forms of protection are dust masks and respirators covering their nose and mouth.
Employees at Carborough Downs, which uses longwall mining - where a wall of coal is mined in a single slice (pictured), are given several options when choosing which they prefer to wear.
They can choose from disposable and reusable filtered dust masks through to battery-powered air purifying filtered respirators that can either come attached to a hard hat or just cover the bottom of their face.
Miners heading underground must ensure they are cleanly shaven so the masks fit snugly and allow no dust in.
It is not the only gear the men and women suit up in before they take the journey through a maze of descending tunnels to their underground "office".
Decked in their hard hats with torches attached and safety glasses, they must also wear steel-capped gumboots as they sometimes trudge through deep puddles from the water sprinkler systems used to combat airborne dust.
Their earplugs reduce the roar of the powerful machinery and the constantly moving conveyor belt carrying off coal as it is shaved off the walls.
It is impossible to imagine an unfit miner nimbly weaving between machinery and ducking underneath low-hanging pipes while kitted in a heavy work belt which holds other safety gear, a water bottle, tools and portable oxygen device in the sweltering underground temperature.
- APN NEWSDESK