Section of a coal worker's lung showing black lung disease with progressive massive fibrosis.
Section of a coal worker's lung showing black lung disease with progressive massive fibrosis. Contributed

Mines doctors aren't trained in black lung

COAL company appointed doctors to monitor worker's health often have "no experience in mining" and don't understand the health risks in mining, a parliamentary inquiry into black lung has heard.

Speaking at the parliamentary inquiry into the re-emergence of black lung, Department of Natural Resources and Mines occupational physician David Smith said the number of "nominated medical advisers" had dramatically increased since the early 2000s.

Mining companies can appoint one or more registered medical practitioner to become an NMA. There is currently no training specifications to become an NMA.

Dr Smith said when he started working for the department in 2004 there were about 30 NMAs in Queensland. Since the mining boom that number is in the hundreds.

He said NMAs contacted him when they detected a suspected black lung case.

But he said many of these doctors do not have experience in workplace health or knowledge about mining.

"Many have no experience in coal mining, they don't have any experience in mining," he said.

"They have no occupational medical background, it's been a problem."

Dr Smith said he has written internal memos about his concerns as early as 2013. Nothing was done.

Dr Smith said there had been a lack of support from unions and industry groups to change legislation between 2013 and 2015. He said after the 2015 election any changes fell off the radar.

Dr Smith said he became concerned black lung could re-emerge in Australia in the coming years due to an increase in cases in the United States.

He said in 2005 the American National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health sent a representative to Queensland and NSW to investigate why no black lung cases were occurring in Australia.

Committee chair Jo-Ann Miller asked how Dr Smith would find out if a retired coal worker was diagnosed with black lung through a public hospital.

Dr Smith admitted in that situation he might not find out about it.

"It's quite possible I might not hear about it at all," he said.

The committee will sit next on December 12.