What are workplace exposure standards for coal in Australia? These are legislative regulations that govern the occupational exposure limits (OELs) for coal dust exposure in mining operations. Safe Work Australia is at the forefront of advocating for tightening legislative changes aimed at preventing further increase of coal dust related diseases amongst mine workers. As it stands, as of the 1st of October 2022, all coal mines across Australia will need to adhere to a new respirable exposure dust standard of 1.5 milligrams/cubic metre, which is a reduction from the previous standard of 2.5 milligrams/cubic metre.

Queensland has already moved to adopt these standards and most of the other states and territories are planning to implement well prior to the deadline. Workplace exposure limits (WES) for respirable coal dust for New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (QLD) and Western Australia (WA) are 1.5 milligrams/cubic metre (from 1 February 2021), 1.5 milligrams/cubic metre and 1.5 milligrams/cubic metre (from 27 October 2021) respectively. Policy changes have been prompted by a spike in the number of mine workers being diagnosed with black lung disease in recent years. What is the problem? A lack of adequate and effective dust control measures around mining activities has contributed to the increase in frequency of black lung disease in Australia. To understand the background to WES for coal dust in Australia we focus on:

  • What are the risks and sources of respirable coal dust?
  • Why are there so many coal mines in Australia?
  • We finalise by asking – Are workplace exposure standard for coal dust enough?

What are the risks and sources of respirable coal dust in Australia?

Coal is mined in every state in Australia, and it plays a major role in the country’s economy. Australia has huge coal reserves found along the entire length of the east coast, throughout Australia and even in the Norther Territory. Different mining activities produce coal dust and any coal mine dust that enters the respiratory system poses a potential health risk. The respirable dust fraction that reaches the lower parts of the lungs is a priority to manage. In the lower part of the lungs, it is difficult to remove.

Occupational exposure to respirable coal dust leads to scarring of the lung tissue. As a result, fibrosis can develop. The chemical nature of coal renders it toxic. Its presence can result in lung cancer. Thus, coal dust monitoring alone is not enough. Coal dust elimination at its source prevents onset of respiratory health hazards described. 

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

Coal dust comes from the following areas in underground coal mines:

  • longwall operations 
  • development operations 
  • outbye operations 
  • return roadways 
  • stone drivage 
  • surface operations 
  • maintenance activities 
  • coal processing plants – stockpiles and laboratories

In surface coal mines coal dust comes from the following areas:

  • coal processing plants – stockpiles and laboratories 
  • drill and blast operations 
  • excavation operations 
  • haulage operations 
  • maintenance activities 
  • support services – pumps, inspections, survey
  • exploration drilling 
  • highwall/auger mining.

Why are there so many coal mines in Australia?

The presence of very good and consistent coal resources in Australia makes it a lucrative business. The location of these coal mines generally comes closer to ports which makes it more feasible for the export industry as transport costs from pit to port are quite reasonable. In contrast to world deposits, the distance from ports comes up as a major challenge in different parts of the world. The types of coal in the Australian deposits are in demand from overseas power stations and steel plants. Geographically, Australia is fortunate to be close to the largest import coal markets in the world. Historically, Japanese firms were actively involved in developing new Australian coal mines in the 70s and 80s. Government administrations in Australia have generally been supportive of mining this has seen massive investments in the coal mining industry with large amounts of investor funds channeled towards coal mining. Taxes on mining have been very stable for decades. Internally, individual states own the coal and effectively license mining companies to extract it. The national government gets a fixed percentage of the sale price as payment. State governments have also seen mining as a good way of supporting infrastructure development into sparsely settled areas. Development of one or two mines with infrastructure to support them allows other mines to gain relatively low-cost access to ports without the need for large up-front capital. The Hunter Valley and Bowen Basin are great examples of this. The rail systems are owned by third parties and allow access by any mine for a small capital charge included in the cost. What does this all mean for WES? Are they enough? We provide the answer in the next section. 


Is the workplace exposure standard for coal dust enough?

The economic incentives, the geography and history seems to all favor coal mining which also means more risk of exposure to coal dust. Are coal dust WES then enough to protect coal mine workers from the risks and hazards of exposure? We strongly argue with a ‘NO’. Occupational exposure to coal dust results in coal mine workers pneumoconiosis and increase the risk of lung cancer. For coal mine workers, the eventual stopping point of these pulmonary diseases is death, and this is to the detriment of coal mine workers and their families. What we state without ‘walking on eggshells’ is that exposure to any amount of coal dust can kill you. Existing dust exposure limits are not working and policing and monitoring to prevent coal dust exposure is ineffective. Ending coal dust in mining involves eliminating it at its source through application of chemical dust palliatives. For underground coal dust control GRT Activate UG is used to superactivate water sprayed to control dust in longwall and continuous miner operations. It saturates the coal face and intercepts fine particles immobilizing fugitive coal dust. Knowledge is ineffective without implementation of the obvious so with a ‘loud’ and ‘resolute’ voice we advocate for a new way of approaching coal dust by starting the “End dust in mining” revolution. Do join in and spread the message of ending dust in mining. WES are not enough and for as long as there is a ‘lukewarm’ approach lives will be lost.

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