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Issue #1727      April 20, 2016

Return of Black Lung

How the union exposed those responsible

It started simply enough in August last year when 73-year-old retired coal miner Percy Verrall contacted CFMEU Queensland District President Stephen Smyth with suspicions that his rapid health deterioration was linked to his 29 years working in the state’s coal industry. “Percy described a chronic lung condition and I asked him if he could give me x-rays he had taken and I undertook to send them to Dr Bob Cohen in the US, a world expert on Black Lung, to have a look at them. As it turned out Dr Cohen and his team found that Percy had Black Lung, a chronic killer disease that had gone undiagnosed in Australia.”

Stephen Smyth told Common Cause that Percy’s diagnosis set the alarm bells ringing and along with Queensland District Check Inspectors Jason Hill and Stephen Woods, the union embarked on an investigation that led to many more cases of the deadly Black Lung being uncovered. Working miners at Vale’s Carborough Downs and Anglo’s Grasstree mines were found to be suffering from the disease. Among them is Keith Stoddart, a 66-year-old coal mining veteran who had been a smoker but given up. He went to his doctor because he was suffering from stabbing pains in his chest.

The scars on Keith Stoddart’s lungs didn’t look like ordinary cancer so his doctor sent him to see a thoracic specialist in Brisbane, 900 kilometres from his Central Queensland home in Middlemount.

It took two biopsies, a lung function test and an agonising wait before a phone call came with a diagnosis. “Good news – no cancer. Bad news – Black Lung,” Keith Stoddart told The Australian newspaper. He had been diagnosed with deadly coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, a disease supposedly eradicated in Australia 30 years ago. As an underground coal miner, Keith’s five-yearly x-rays are supposed to be analysed by specialists who can accurately detect and report on the disease and filed with the Queensland Department of Mines and Natural Resources.

But they all failed to identify the deadly disease in Keith.

As other cases of Black Lung victims emerged it became crystal clear that the system in Queensland had disastrously failed the workforce.

Stephen Smyth told Common Cause that the union uncovered a systematic failure by mining companies along with successive state governments and their agencies. “We have state government agencies responsible for the monitoring and control of dust levels in the mines and others responsible for checking on the health and safety of coal mineworkers.

“They all failed and when we raised the issue we were howled down with accusations that we were using our concerns over the return of Black Lung as an industrial tactic – an accusation that is as disgraceful as it is untrue. The state government agencies went running for cover while the mining companies’ mouthpiece, the Queensland Resources Council, accused the union of scare-mongering.

“But as we began to dig beneath the surface we discovered a shameful record of cover-ups that go back to the early 1980s when a report commissioned by the then Queensland Coal Board found 75 coal miners with Black Lung. When we asked who they were and what was done to assist them after the diagnosis, we were told there was no record of their names and no one knew if follow-up action was ever taken.

Disgrace

“This is an absolute disgrace from the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen era when the government was in bed with the big mining companies who dominated our state’s economy and wielded enormous power”.

Stephen Smyth told Common Cause that documents had also been leaked recently going back to the late 1990s indicating that more cases of Black Lung had been identified. “Nobody will tell us who they were and what happened.

“What we know now is that we have working coal miners as well as retired miners who have been diagnosed with Black Lung. We fear that they are only the tip of the iceberg. We need to continue to push to get to the bottom of this scandal and who is responsible.

“Clearly, mineworkers have been exposed to deadly dust levels, the damage to their health has not been picked up and at present there is no adequate compensation to assist victims”.

Stephen Smyth told Common Cause that in Keith Stoddart’s case, he has spent thousands on medical bills, and had not yet been able to receive workers’ compensation. “Keith has paid for all his own medical care, all his travel costs, all his cat scans, his pet scans, and all the specialists he has to see,” he said.

Keith’s wife Danielle told the Senate Inquiry her husband’s health had deteriorated since diagnosis.

“As soon as he exerts himself, like by mowing the lawn, he can’t manage that. As soon as he gets up he’s exhausted. He’s starting to wake up through the night with pains in his chest”.

One of Keith Stoddart’s fellow miners at Anglo’s Grasstree colliery, 34-year-old Chris Carter, told the Senate Inquiry that dust monitoring was generally undertaken once a month at the mine, on a Thursday afternoon, when his longwall crew was on a “maintenance” shift.

Data provided to The Australian, which the union says was leaked from Carborough Downs, shows dust levels could have exceeded four times the legal limits as far back as 2011. Back then, Ian Hiscock worked at Carborough Downs in a longwall crew.

“There was always an operator in the dust constantly,” Ian Hiscock told The Australian. “There was that much leakage in the seals from the mines, that we just couldn’t get any more air,” he adds. “Carborough Downs had a leakage problem in its ventilation seals.

“We were always asking management for more air ... fighting for more air.” Concerned about the effects on his health, Ian left Carborough Downs and after working briefly at Anglo America’s Grasstree colliery, he quit the industry at the age of 46 and now works as a prison officer.

“I decided that enough was enough and my health and family came first so I quit the industry,” he says. “I dropped $110,000 a year but so much happier now.”

However, troubled by a nasty cough, in January this year Ian Hiscock asked Vale, his former employer at Carborough Downs, to send his last x-rays to the US as part of its review. But they refused as Ian no longer works for them! The union stepped in and sent Ian’s x-rays off for expert analysis.

Self-regulation failure

At the Senate Inquiry, witnesses from across the industry said self-regulation of dust levels was a major factor in the return of Black Lung, and will lead to further cases of the disease.

Evidence provided by US Black Lung expert Dr Bob Cohen showed that independent monitoring was the only way to ensure procedures were being followed. He told the Inquiry: “I think deregulation doesn’t work. We’ve had pretty good evidence. For many years our industry stated that they could just self-police, that they would you know, police themselves and do this. And it really didn’t work.”

Stephen Smyth summed up the scandal of the return of Black Lung at Queensland’s mines: “We have a health system that hasn’t been looking for Black Lung in the first place and medical practitioners not qualified to recognise it anyway, we have a self-monitoring system that is refusing to look for illegal dust levels, we have government agencies that have covered up and continue to be too close to mining companies and we have non-existent compensation for victims who end up with a disease that has been inflicted on them through no fault of their own and was being ignored at every turn.

“The truth is that with over 100,000 coal miners’ medical reports lying unexamined in storage, we don’t know how many victims of Black Lung there are working in the industry or among those who have left the industry through retirements or retrenchments.

“Our Union has uncovered this whole mess and we will not rest until it is fixed once and for all and that the victims who have had this insidious disease inflicted on them by criminal neglect start to get the support they need and deserve,” Stephen Smyth told Common Cause.

In the meantime, the union in Queensland will continue to participate in the state government’s Sims Review into the processes that failed in the Black Lung scandal.

“As we pushed for a full Inquiry into all issues related to the return of Black Lung, we pointed out to Minister Anthony Lynham that the present Queensland Labor government had inherited the crisis and not been part of creating it.

“We know the government is under pressure from the Queensland Resources Council and various figures in its own departmental agencies who are trying to downplay the extent of the Black Lung crisis but frankly while we welcome the Sims Review as a start, the government will be judged by its actions and we have a way to go yet to ensure the eradication of Black Lung in Queensland and win justice for its victims”, said Stephen Smyth.

Common Cause

CFMEU Mining and Energy

Next article – Obituary – A simple woman with universal values

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