Miners told to get repeat tests after audit exposes black lung bungle

A black lung testing bungle has been exposed in Queensland, where 135 coal miners have been told they need to undergo repeat testing for the deadly condition.

An audit by Resources Safety and Health Queensland (RSHQ) revealed a 30 per cent error rate in lung function tests that were conducted by a spirometry company in Mackay last year.

The medical company, which RSHQ has not named, has been suspended for six months for providing substandard tests.

Spirometry testing is used to identify breathing impairment seen in black lung disease, which is caused by long-term inhalation of coal mine dust.

RSHQ health strategy and compliance director Patrick Jensen said all affected coal miners had been telephoned and follow-up letters were sent on Wednesday.

He said their employers and doctors were also contacted.

“We’re recommending all those affected workers undertake repeat spirometry tests,” Mr Jensen said.

“While we always work with medical providers to improve screening quality through education and advice, we don’t shy away from taking appropriate regulatory action where necessary to protect workers’ health and safety.”

He said the audit revealed that 30 per cent of the provider’s spirometry tests were unacceptable and did not meet minimum quality standards.

It found the spirometry practice failed to conduct the tests effectively, failed to identify issues in the test results, and did not maintain accurate comments, which led to incorrect result interpretation.

‘Disgusting’ failure rate

Mining and Energy Union industry safety and health representative Jason Hill said 30 per cent was a “disgusting” rate of failure.

“This one’s a bit of a shock, to see that you’ve got one clinic or one doctor has failed so many times,” he said.

A man with short, grey hair stands holding a cordless microphone in what appears to be a conference room.

Jason Hill is concerned by the audit results.(Supplied: Mining and Energy Union)

Mr Hill said he was worried about the health of workers in central Queensland.

He said that since the re-emergence of black lung disease in 2015 the union had advocated for tests to be done by independent doctors who did not work for mining companies.

“The industry cannot rely on doctors that are paid for by the company,” Mr Hill said.

He said that the disease could be managed when it was detected early.

“People can remain employed and hopefully they can live a full, healthy life,” Mr Hill said.

“But if it’s not picked up early, people will continue to be exposed to unacceptable levels of dust — then it ultimately becomes a death sentence.”

Importance of testing

Mr Hill said black lung disease could cause a slow and painful death.

“That’s why it’s so important that these screening processes are done accurately and correctly,” he said.

Mr Hill said he would like to see better dust monitoring.

“Other jurisdictions in the world do independent data monitoring,” he said.

“We need to lift our standards up to those — we can’t rely on the fox being in charge of the henhouse.”

Mr Jensen said the suspension sent a strong message to medical providers about putting the health of coal mine workers at risk through substandard medical screening.

“The re-identification of black lung disease in Queensland in 2015 highlighted the importance of ensuring medical screening is of a high standard and the consequences when this isn’t the case,” he said.

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