Black lung: How health authorities failed Queensland coal miners

Last week, the Queensland Parliament released details of its investigation into the black lung scandal. It found miners were not protected because of the assumption the disease did not exist in Australia.

It was described as a catastrophic failure at almost every level.

In 2015, there was a spate of diagnoses of black lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) among Queensland coal miners, including two who did not even work underground.

Decades of health surveillance meant to protect the workforce had been botched.

Every five years, miners went through a health assessment — usually performed at a GP practice. If the miner was felt to be at risk, a chest X-ray was ordered and sent to the Queensland Government's Health Surveillance Unit for review.

Last week, an inquiry report into the system, released by the Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis Select Committee, found that the surveillance unit struggled to do any actual surveillance.

“It served as nothing more than a storage unit for miners’ chest X‐rays and health records,” the report declared.

A 10-year backlog of almost 200,000 health records built up at the unit.

So vast was the number that the health records ended up being stored in shipping containers or in a janitor’s cupboard next to the toilets.

The poor storage conditions resulted in many records being destroyed.

Related: GPs set up to fail on black lung

The unit was “hopelessly” underresourced, the report stated, sometimes staffed by just one, part-time administration officer, even as the mining boom created a deluge of reports.

Although the unit’s failures stand out, the inquiry’s 400-page report bears out the headline claim of failure at every level.

Despite the complexities in diagnosing black lung, mining companies contracted GPs who had no special training in identifying the elusive disease.

For the miners who attended their five-yearly assessment, chest X-rays were not always ordered.

“The entire coal mining industry in Queensland and NSW seemed to believe that [black lung] had been eradicated in Australia, with the last cases reported in Queensland in the 1980s,” the report explained.

In what it described as a “tragic irony”, the assumption was so ingrained that Queensland attracted US experts interested in how the state had eradicated a disease that was still blighting the lives of thousands of US miners.

Then came 2015.

The report did not give details of the first case to be picked up, except that the patient was 53, had worked as a miner in Queensland and the UK, and that the doctor who assessed him made the discovery in May that year.

The diagnosis immediately triggered fears that other cases might have been missed or misdiagnosed in an assessment system that had gone to sleep.

To date, 21 miners have received black lung diagnoses, and it is believed many more will probably be diagnosed as officials continue to review the records.

“Black lung is not quick, like a mine explosion, but an insidious disease that develops over many years,” the report stated.

“However, like mine explosions, black lung is preventable. The results are no different — death, illness and enormous changes in working and family lives.

“Miners and their families are never the same again,” the report concluded.