Central Queensland doctors say ‘system failed coalminers’

A CENTRAL Queensland GP believes coalminers were failed by the system which for several years failed to detect the return of the potentially deadly black lung disease.

Emerald GP Dr Ewen McPhee is one of more than a dozen registered Nominated Medical Advisors (NMA) in Central Queensland authorised to conduct coal board medical assessments and lung function tests used in the diagnosis of black lung.

But with a focus on assessing a candidate's suitability for work and not detecting chronic disease, Dr McPhee said the system had to change if workers were to be protected.

Dr McPhee spoke to The Morning Bulletin after Monash University last week released the final report in a review of the respiratory component of the Coal Mine Workers' Health Scheme.

The review was commissioned by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines after several confirmed cases of black lung, a disease thought to be eradicated in Australia.

The report outlined problems in the Coal Mine Workers' Health Scheme which failed to detect at least 11 confirmed cases of the disease.

There are 237 NMAs registered, with 16 listed in the 'Rockhampton region' taking in Gladstone, Rockhampton, the Capricorn Coast, Biloela and Moura.

There is no formal training for NMAs and they aren't required to hold any specific qualifications, apart from being a registered medical practitioner.

While the report found newly registered NMAs are provided with an 18-page information booklet about the health scheme, there are no instructions regarding evaluation of abnormal findings.

The report recommended this pool of approved doctors should be tightened and a formal training program introduced which included mine site visits prior to registration with the Queensland Government.

Dr McPhee agreed ongoing support and training should be provided to doctors registered to complete coal board medicals.

He said workers' records should also be kept for long-term monitoring, requiring "significant government investment".

"I think the whole system has failed coalminers and that there needs to be a complete review of the way underground coalminers' health is monitored," DrMcPhee said.

"It's not something a GP or an occupational specialist can do by themselves, it requires the help of government.

"From a doctor's point of view, we've been doing fitness for work assessments.

"The x-rays and other things are being sent down to the department for, we presumed, assessment and monitoring, but this wasn't happening.

"So there's been a high degree of complacency in this whole system with regards to the surveillance for this condition which was thought to be eradicated."

Dr McPhee said the overhaul should set clear standards for all levels, including personal protection of workers.

"The whole industry needs to adopt a positive proactive approach in managing this," he said.

"It's no one person's fault.

"It's a whole-of-industry approach here and it includes the workers themselves."

Dr McPhee said improvements in monitoring would be pointless without better prevention methods including personal protective equipment and less exposure to coal dust.

"Obviously these people have been exposed to occupationally high levels of coal dust for a long time to get this condition," he said.

"The principal failing is people have been exposed.

"The secondary failing is the system hasn't been set up to pick that up."

Dust exposure

In Queensland, the maximum allowable dust exposure level for a shift is 3mg per cubic metre of air.

In New South Wales, it's 2.5mg per cubic metre of air.

Earlier this year, the United States implemented a national standard of 1.5mg per cubic metre.

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