OPINION: How we bust dust in NSW coal mines

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Tradies were marching in the streets just weeks ago, protesting an industry that is causing death and disease from the dust generated by cutting the engineered stone common in kitchens. Dangerous dust is also an issue in the mining industry; but while mineworkers must always be vigilant, they work in a highly monitored and regulated environment that substantially minimises the risk of dust disease.

We support the calls by construction and manufacturing unions for a ban on manufactured stone containing silica in the wake of a sharp rise in deadly silicosis.

Manufactured stone cutting predominantly takes place in small workshops where safety standards are not enforced. The stories of workers in their 30s and 40s cutting dozens of benchtops a day without PPE or dust monitoring and now diagnosed with terminal lung disease are absolutely heartbreaking.

The coal mining industry also has a history of illness which in some cases has led to fatalities through Black Lung (coal workers pneumoconiosis) and other mine dust lung diseases. But in NSW, a comprehensive regime of regulation and enforcement means that is largely in the past.

Workers in underground and surface operations must be aware of the risks associated with airborne dust. Respiratory protective equipment (masks) are important in some locations on site, but they are a last line of defence following control measures like ventilation and dust suppression/capture. I encourage all mineworkers to seek out information about the risks of airborne dust exposure produced by Coal Services and to speak to your supervisor or Site Safety and Health Representative if you have concerns about dust controls on site. 

However, I can also reassure mineworkers that the situation in NSW coal mines is nothing like those workers cutting engineered stone for kitchen benchtops. The NSW coal industry has industry has a unique safety system with multiple layers of regulatory protection in place to ensure that dust exposure is measured and managed.

Coal Services is the statutory health and safety scheme for coal miners in NSW, jointly owned by the Mining and Energy Union and the NSW Minerals Council. Over the 70 years Coal Services has been in place, instances of mine dust lung disease in NSW coal mines have dramatically reduced.

Coal Services conducts pre-placement medicals, periodic reviews and chest x-rays for all coal miners in NSW. Periodic chest x-rays for coal mineworkers are a legal requirement in NSW and they allow for early detection and management if any sign of mine lung dust disease is detected.

Allowable levels for various forms of hazardous airborne dusts like silica and coal are set through legislation. The NSW Resources Regulator, which is a government department, is responsible for monitoring and enforcement of dust levels. The Resource Regulator conducts regular inspections of dust levels and dust management programs and is an effective cop on the beat in the NSW mining industry. The union has a seat on the NSW Resource Regulator’s Mine Safety Advisory Council, and we have full oversight of safety practices affecting workers, including dust monitoring.

NSW coal mineworkers also benefit from our Industry Safety and Health Representatives (ISHRs), positions created through legislation and employed by the union to give workers a strong voice in mine safety.

Two of our ISHRs sit on Coal Services’ Standing Dust Committee, along with other industry and independent stakeholders, to ensure any dust exceedances in NSW coal mines are reviewed and appropriately addressed.

In these ways the union, employers, and government all work together, backed by legislation, to maintain high standards of safety including dust management and disease prevention in NSW mines.

Each mineworker must do his or her part to understand the hazards associated with dust, take appropriate measures and participate in required medical screening. But all mineworkers in our state are backed up by a unique and comprehensive safety regime that prevents illness and saves lives. We will always fight to uphold it.

Robin Williams

District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy

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