Currently, there are over 400 active mines in the state of Queensland. The number of cases linked to Mine Dust Lung Diseases (MDLD) has risen dramatically, with over 133 cases just in Queensland since 1984. At the beginning of 2019, it was recorded that there was 102 diagnosis of MDLD in the state. In the past two weeks alone there have been 20 new diagnoses of MDLD in Queensland. On top of this, the statistics for stonemasons is particularly concerning, with now 1 in 5 stonemasons diagnosed with an MDLD. Currently, there are protective measures and a range of PPE available on the market, however, the rate of diagnosis per annum continues to increase.

The main MDLD’s that threaten the lives of miners and other workers in Australia are pneumoconiosis (CWP), mixed pneumoconiosis (MDP), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asbestosis. All of these diseases are developed over long-term exposure to a high concentration of dust generation during mining processes, especially materials and dust comprised of silica. The reasons responsible for the increase in MDLD cases are controversial. Some arguments relate to the improvement of diagnostic technology in the medical industry, and efficient reporting has led to the increase. Others debate, that the improved technologies that underpin the efficient excavation of mineral ore in the industry produce a higher concentration of dust, which has led to more cases.

Medical and Diagnostic Technologies

There have been a number of upgrades in the medical industry, not only in technology but also provisions for registration of MDLD cases. Since 2016, there have been improvements under the Coal Mine Workers Health scheme which have required all chest x rays to be dual read to ILO standards. It has been recognised, however, that the screening process is only one part of the diagnosis of an MDLD. If a reading has been identified as positive for an MDLD, it does not necessarily infer that the patient will be diagnosed with the disease. There are a number of subsequent tests which must be undertaken that lead to a diagnosis. In 2018, the public health regulation passed a measure that required all medical practitioners to register any MDLD diagnosed patients to the government register for MDLD cases as a method of tracking the diagnosis (it was an addition to the Public Health Act of 2005).

Many clinical professors have noticed an increase in MDLD cases, with many saying that the increase is due to the previous misdiagnosis and rediscovering of mild MDLD cases, which have developed into severe cases over time. Other medical practitioners say “the disease (in reference to coal miners pneumoconiosis) was never eradicated, and that people stopped looking for it”. One thing is for certain, which is that there is no known cure for any of these MDLD’s.

Mining Technologies

There have been a number of sources from state governments, medical professionals and industry professionals, all which have pointed the finger at the substantial upgrades in mechanical mining technology that have replaced the smaller, out-dated mining equipment of the 20th century. The mining industry is constantly investing in R&D to find more effective, and efficient methods of increasing profits. The primary method is by increasing efficiency of machines by increasing the size of the machinery such as excavators, loaders, haul truckers, and draglines. With the increased grandeur and mass of the machinery that runs the Australian economy, there have been serious impacts on the health of workers. As described many times before, the mining industry continues to become larger and more destructive in its processes. The large mechanical work undertaken by this large-scale machinery generates an extraordinarily large quantity of dust. Australia is already a very dry and windy country when these conditions are coupled with the dust generated from a transport truck that is capable of carrying over 600t of material, the explosive detonations to loosen material and the excavators that transport millions of tonnes of dust, soil and raw material, the exposure of dust are magnified many times over. There have been reports that protective gear (PPE) is readily available in the industry, however, it has been noted by many professionals in the industry that re-enforcement of the rules to wear PPE gear are too lax. In any case, PPE should always be the last resort in making a process safe.

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Stonemasons

In the stone cutting industry, the number of diagnoses has skyrocketed, with now 1 in 5 stonemasons diagnosed with an MDLD in Queensland. There are currently, 26 known cases that have developed into severe progressive massive fibrosis. (a severe case of an MDLD). The processes in the stonemason industry that have likely led to this increase are the dry cutting kitchen benchtops, stones and tiles. An interview with a veteran of the stonemason industry described to the Brisbane Times his experiences in the field, and explained how “at times the air is so thick with dust that you can barely breathe or see anything”. The cheap engineered stone that stonemasons usually use is composed of 90% silica. Silica is that main geological mineral that is responsible for the onset of MDLD’s.
A goal has been set to introduce a task force to develop a national approach for the prevention, early identification, control and management of dust disease in Australia. There have been reports by the state government that enquiries have been made, however, no solid responses have been made at this time.

Social Impact

The effect of MDLD’S has had a detrimental impact on the victims and their families. It is believed that there is a much larger population of blue-collar workers in the mining industry than those that have already been diagnosed. However, possibly due to male stigma, many refuse to get checked, and over the upcoming years, we should expect the number of cases to grow substantially. This number includes miners and workers that are currently retired and those that are still in the workforce.

Alan Whyte, a victim of black lung disease, came forward to tell his story to the ABC. Mr Whyte shared his story after working in the industry for over 40 years. He has been recently diagnosed with a severe case of black lung disease. He has described his health impacts as ”severe” and says “I cannot walk to my car without being out of breath”, and describes himself as being on “borrowed time”. He goes on to explain the attitudes that men have in the industry about going in to get checked, the stigma is still very noticeable in the industry.

Manager or supervisor – there are things that you can do to ensure your workers are safe. This includes spreading awareness by holding meetings, providing information about MDLD’s and providing contact information for medical practitioners or psychologists in the area. By educating workers of the impacts of these diseases, and overcoming the stigma in the industry, it could save a lot of lives. However, consistent action and support are required over a long period.

Conclusion

The population of industry workers diagnosed with MDLD’s is expected to continue to rise over the next few years as medical technology and diagnosing methods continues to improve. As mentioned there are a number of campaigns initiated by the state and local government urging miners and workers within the construction, mining and stonecutting industry to get checked regularly. The stigma of “being a man” and “being hard” is heavily outdated, especially when healthy young men and women are becoming victims of such a vicious and unforgiving disease. Workplace cultural change, medical diagnosis, and mining processes all need to evolve in order to deliver the immediate and long-term change needed by the people in these industries.

References:

https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/australia/cases-of-mine-dust-lung-disease-and-silicosis-increasingly-found-in-queensland-coal-mine-workers/ar-BB10m2UC?ocid=spartandhp&fbclid=IwAR0FuOB9bxyvDD4nrG0aKQvde2nPLWoulljZOMaXTU_Jp4Isi2nn44TJvzU
https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/calls-for-action-after-one-in-five-stonemasons-diagnosed-with-disease-20200120-p53t0n.html
https://www.skynews.com.au/details/_6124792922001
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-25/silicosis-and-black-lung-cases-rise-queensland-workers/11998404
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-26/dozens-of-new-black-lung-cases-qld-advocates-say/10851482