It has taken the dogged persistence and unrelenting determination of our Union to expose the scandalous return of the deadly Black Lung disease in coal mineworkers in Queensland.
As this column goes to press at Easter, we know of at least eight confirmed cases and our Union suspects that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Incredibly, the Union has discovered that there is a backlog of more than 100,000 coal mineworkers medicals sitting in a government office unchecked in Queensland, leaving the entire workforce, and many who have left the industry through retirement or retrenchments, with the uncertainty of possibly living with Black Lung.
From the time that our Queensland District President Stephen Smyth uncovered the first case of Black Lung to be confirmed this century in retired miner Percy Verrall, the Union pushed for urgent action to discover the extent of the disease in the workforce and for immediate measures to be put in place to stop it.
Following Stephen’s Queensland District report to Central Council last November, our Union nationally threw its full support into a campaign to eradicate the return of Black Lung and make sure that those who have fallen victim to it are identified and treated as best we can.
Percy Verrall’s diagnosis triggered the discovery of other cases and our Union pushed the Queensland Labor Government to conduct a full scale Inquiry into the Black Lung scandal. Minister Anthony Lynham announced a Review of the processes that allowed the return of this deadly disease and while it was a welcome development it does not go far enough.
As more cases were identified and the re-emergence of Black Lung became a big media story that rocked the public, our Union successfully pushed for a Senate Inquiry that uncovered some shocking truths in evidence presented to it.
Among them is the criminal negligence of mining companies that are driven by making greater profits at the expense of coal mineworkers health and safety. Some mines were found to have coal dust levels more than twice the legal limit. The Senate Inquiry heard evidence that even then, dust sampling was often conducted on days and in areas when the longwall unit was not operating.
This callous and criminal neglect could only occur because of successive State governments irresponsibly allowing mining companies greater self-regulation in Queensland mines.
Unlike NSW, dust monitoring in Queensland’s mines has been left up to individual mining companies without independent checks, which has seen rorting of the system and long breaks in between dust level checks in mines.
Health and regulatory authorities have become complacent when dealing with the disease, leaving no qualified specialists able to review and identify Black Lung in coalmine workers. Indeed, in some cases Black Lung victims went decades without being x-rayed while others had most of their x-rays go missing.
While the Senate Inquiry is yet to report on its findings, all our members can rest assured that this Union will leave no stone unturned in the quest to fully identify all those who may have contracted Black Lung and make sure they receive the best treatment and compensation there is.
Equally important, we will not rest until the causes of Black Lung are fully eradicated and that means holding mining companies, governments and their agencies to account, whatever the cost.