Black lung disease: more cases emerge among Queensland coal workers

More cases of Queensland mining workers with “black lung” have emerged, bringing the number of those diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease from coal dust to eight.

Guardian Australia can reveal the two latest cases involve employees at Vale’s Carborough Downs mine and Anglo American’s Grasstree mine.

It is understood both companies are yet to report these cases to the state government, which announced on Friday its first response to a review of screening failures leading up to the disease’s shock return this year.

But he stopped short of guaranteeing that the government would take the selection of these doctors out of the hands of mining companies, simply saying the government was “also looking at alternatives”.

Lung health specialists and the mining union have criticised the level of secrecy around test results and the direct involvement of mining companies in their employee’s health screening process.

They have called for a national, independent screening body set up by the federal government and funded at arms length by the mining industry.

The return of black lung or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in Queensland this year has shocked the medical profession and the mining industry, which believed the disease had been eliminated decades ago.

Stephen Smyth, the Queensland president of the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), said the latest black lung cases had gone undetected in company-ordered x-rays last year.

“It’s just an absolute debacle,” he said.

The Carborough Downs miner had his case diagnosed in a CT scan, and the Grasstree miner had his diagnosis confirmed at Brisbane’s Wesley hospital.

“[The Grasstree employee] is in a pretty bad way and he’s been told he’ll never work in a coal mine again,” Smyth said.

He said his members had lost faith in government oversight of a mining industry-run screening process and would trust only “a system independent of the coal companies”.

That meant “no company doctors and people trained to the ILO [International Labor Organisation] standard [of reading x-rays for pneumoconiosis]”.

“Australia has one of the world’s best [x-ray] imaging systems but a third world way of analysing it,” he said.

The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand has called for a national registry of mine worker health screening set up by the federal government.

Deborah Yates, a respiratory physician at Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital with experience of treating black lung in the UK, said big flaws in the current system included an “amazing” level of secrecy around lung-screening results.

“It’s not given to the patients so they don’t know their own results, which is something we’re highly unused to in medicine.

“We need a central registry, which can be kept safe, basically; safe from political intrusion, from government intrusion, from employer intrusion, so workers can have confidence that the right thing is being done for them as an individual.”

The CFMEU has questioned the adequacy of records kept by the health surveillance unit of the mining department, which has a backlog of 100,000 health assessment forms yet to be entered into its database.

The long-term development of the disease means records should be kept for at least 30 years, according to Yates.

She said while black lung cases had so far been confined to Queensland, it was “naïve to expect it to be in one state”.

“ The international experience which is at least accessible demonstrated an increase in coal workers’ pneumoconiosis all over the world,” she said.

“Certainly in America, there’s been a real resurgence in cases in younger workers and also more severe cases.

“This may be partly due to the fact the technology in coal mining has been changing, that they’ve been having more vigorous cutters which potentially could be producing more dust and also they’re using different seams they might not have needed to use earlier.

“But the fact of the matter is if they’d been monitoring the levels more carefully and looked at all the results, they would have revealed it early on. The fact there’s been cases of progressive massive fibrosis occurring is reprehensible.

“There’s no reason why anyone should have complicated pneumoconiosis in the modern world.”

A statement from Lynham’s office said the government was “also looking at alternative ways to appoint” nominated medical advisers, including general practitioners and physicians, who were now being selected by mining companies.

“The re-emergence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis is an issue I have taken very seriously and that’s why there’s an independent review under way into the state’s health screening system,” Lynham said.

“One of the interim findings of the independent review is a closer focus on developing and maintaining a manageable core cohort of nominated medical advisers.

“I have instructed my department of natural resources and mines to take immediate action on this recommendation.”

The final report by Sim’s group is due mid-year.