Silicosis may pose a threat bigger than black lung disease

Less than three years after the startling admission by the Queensland government that the deadly black lung disease – eradicated in Australia since the 1970s – is making a comeback on the state’s coalfields, a potentially bigger killer of coal miners is emerging: silicosis, which is caused by the inhalation of silica dust. 

Silica is one of the most common minerals in the Earth’s crust, present in most forms of rock, sand and soil, and therefore in a large number of derivative products like cement, bricks, mortar and glass. 

When inhaled, airborne crystalline silica is 20 times more toxic than coal dust. According to a recent study, 6.6 percent of workers in Australia are exposed to it; 3.7 percent are heavily exposed. 

Everyone, from bricklayers to glaziers to those who install engineered stone bench tops in kitchens, is at risk. Mining workers, whose jobs often entail blasting and cutting through large amounts of rock, are the most susceptible.

It’s not just miners working in poorly ventilated underground mines at risk, either. Workers in open cut mines (the most common mine in Australia today) are exposed to lethal amounts of airborne particles. 

In early June, 69-year-old Tyrone Buckton, who worked at the Goonyella Riverside open cut coal mine in the Bowen Basin for 30 years, fell victim to silicosis after being diagnosed in December. 

There is no reason workers should be subject to dangerous amounts of airborne particles if basic safety measures were implemented, such as watering down dust, proper ventilation and using safety masks. 

In Queensland, the miners’ union is demanding that the Palaszczuk government enforce a stronger safety regime on employers. Yet little action has been taken. 

A recommendation from a parliamentary committee last year to halve the exposure limit has still not been implemented. 

Even if it were, the state’s dust level regulator is a toothless tiger. There were 70 recorded breaches of silica dust level limits in the last 15 months. But in the last eight years, only 50 disciplinary measures and three suspensions of mining licences have been issued by the body. 

Queensland CFMEU president Steve Smyth told the ABC’s 7.30 that union members were growing impatient with the government’s inaction.

“Workers have had enough; we’ve had enough, and they can do the right thing by workers and simply, as a start, reduce these levels, have enforcement and have real action.”