Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis (CWP or ‘Black Lung’) has re-emerged as a problem in Australia despite over 30 years without any reported cases. Initially thought to be exclusive to underground mines, one (1) case has been reported in an aboveground mine.
How widespread is this disease and what are Government and businesses doing to prevent it?
Off the back of a re-emergence of Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis, a Senate Committee was established to determine why CWP has re-emerged and what early intervention principals can be put in place to reduce this risk associated with this disease.
After almost 30 years without a reported case, the period between May 2015 and April 2016 has seen eight (8) reported cases (as reported by Senate Committee report and CFMEU report up to fifteen (15) cases since 2015). It is also important to note that previously this disease was thought to be limited to underground coal miners, however there has now been one (1) reported case in a surface (aboveground) miner in Queensland.
Fifth Interim Senate Committee Report – ‘It has buggered my life’
The Senate Committee Report identified that immediate, short-term and longer-term prevention and early intervention actions are required. These actions should be aimed:
- at minimising coal miners’ current exposure to the hazard of coal dust;
- mitigating the creation of coal dust through engineering solutions;
- consistent, mandatory and regular monitoring of the levels of coal dust; &
- on-going provision of financial and medical support for CWP affected miners.
Click here for the full Senate Committee report
Why has ‘Black Lung’ re-emerged?
With the introduction of stringent dust control measures in mining in the developed world during the 1970s, this disease was virtually eradicated. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has monitored trends in black lung for over 40 years in the United States. Only 0.08% of all mine workers and 0.33% of underground coal miners with at least 25 years of mining were diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis in 2000.
However, prevalence has dramatically increased over the past ten years to 3.23% (five-year moving average) of working miners in the central Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Such an increase can only be the result of overexposure to coal dust. This is probably due to a relaxation of dust control regimes in many countries in recent years.
What is Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis?
Pneumoconiosis is a term used to describe a number of lung diseases, many of which do not share mechanisms, symptoms, or prognoses; Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP) is a sub-form.
CWP, also known as (black lung disease), is classified as an industrial disease that is the result of breathing in dust from coal, graphite or manmade carbon over a period of years. The dust is inhaled into the body and resides in the lungs where it progressively builds up over time if the individual is subject to prolonged exposure because the lungs are unable to excrete the dust from the lungs. This can lead to inflammation, fibrosis and in the worst cases, necrosis.
Coal workers pneumoconiosis is caused by the inhalation of coal dust with the probably implication of inhaled crystalline silica (quartz) as well. In its early stages, CWP can be asymptomatic although notable on X-ray. It can advance to its most severe form, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). The lesions with PMF coalesce to show extensive large opacities on X-rays with the lung in those areas becoming a black hard mass. Breathing capacity is severely reduced leading to irreversible health affects (a disabling illness) or death.
The NIOSH recommendations for coal mine dust were intended for both underground and surface (aboveground) coal operations.
Reference – www.pneumoconiosis.org.uk
What action is required by PCBUs?
As with any workplace hazard, it is important to identify, assess and control the risk. If no baseline data is available this is an important step to understanding what risks may be present in the workplace. This can be undertaken via occupational monitoring (i.e. of a task or environment) and/or personal monitoring (i.e. measuring individual workers exposure levels). This baseline information will then determine what next steps are required, from elimination (as far as reasonably practicable) to the reduction of risk and/or health monitoring for individuals as required under the relevant legislation and any ongoing reporting requirements.
Greencap Certified Occupational Hygienist Simon Ercole says ‘PCBU’s taking a compliance based approach to management of the CWP issue in the current climate may not be acceptable. The primary focus of the CWP risk management process is to evaluate exposures. However this approach should not only include strategies and systems for evaluating all exposures but also interpreting and assessing present and future risk those exposures might pose and managing risk to acceptable levels. Assessing and managing the risk of potential personal exposure to coal dust should be a seven (7) step process involving the implementation of an occupational hygiene exposure assessment strategy/program including;
- Establishing the exposure assessment strategy
- Basic characterisation of the workplace, work force and hazards
- Performing the exposure assessment, which includes grouping workers who have similar exposures, defining the exposure profile for each group of similarly exposed workers, and judgement to the acceptability of each exposure profile. Each assessment reaching a conclusion of acceptable, not acceptable or uncertain
- Further information gathering to resolve uncertain exposure assessments;
- Prioritised health hazard control
- Reassessment through comprehensive assessment to ensure efficacy of controls including health monitoring;
- Communication and documentation’
‘Officers’ of a PCBU also have due diligence duties under the WHS legislation which would include that they must, as far as reasonably practicable, ensure the health and safety of workers and other persons at a mine workplace under their control. Mine operators are required to establish mine safety management systems with one of the key elements being control of risk. Basic risk management principles in this case would extend to:
- hazard identification;
- assessment of risk control; &
- review of control effectiveness
Significant change has occurred in the regulatory framework. Model regulations for mining, The Model WHS (Mining) Regulations – were develop by SafeWork Australia in collaboration with states and territories. The model WHS (Mines) Regulations were released in 2012 and contain a common set of principles and regulations setting a national approach to mine health and safety. The “core” regulations have been endorsed by all jurisdictions, however, the major mining states of New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have developed more specific “non-core” mining regulations to ensure the broader range of mining operations undertaken in these states are adequately covered by WHS regulation.
How can Greencap assist around coal dust/Black Lung?
Greencap has provided assistance to a number of organisations to manage the risks arising from coal dust and other workplace contaminants. This has included requisite dealings with the Australian/State regulators, facilitating exposure risk evaluations and briefings/communications to workers.
Our services include:
Health risk assessment both qualitative and quantitative, development, implementation and management of occupational health and monitoring programs and standards, workplace exposure monitoring, statistical evaluation of data and controlling workplace exposure. We have a number of Occupational Hygienists on staff across Australia, including a number of Certified Occupational Hygienists (COHs).
For more information about how Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis (Black Lung) could impact your workplace or facility, contact our expert team today.