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December 2017 – Coal dust exposure monitoring shows improved results but more work to be done

Since 1954 when the Standing Dust Committee was established, our industry has focussed on preventing coal workers pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. Our data shows that the average exposure that sat well below the occupational exposure level (OEL) for 20 years and  demonstrates that today, the NSW coal industry is doing well in managing respirable and inhalable coal dust exposure risk.

Statutory respirable and inhalable dust samples were taken from the breathing zones of 3,733 workers in 2016-17. Of the 2,312 workers sampled for respirable dust, 0.6 exceeded the specified OEL; while of the 1,421 workers sampled for inhalable dust, 4.3 per cent exceeded the specified OEL for inhalable dust.

But there are other airborne contaminants that remain unaddressed by regulation; not just in coal mining but in all industries.

Health research has confirmed that respirable crystalline silica is much more likely to be harmful to workers’ health than coal dust. Respirable crystalline silica is an issue that affects many other industries, well beyond coal and has been identified as an emerging issue for those involved in demolition work, tunnelling, quarry work, air-polishing concrete, foundry work, bricklaying, stone masonry and the making of glass and ceramics.

707 workers were sampled for respirable crystalline silica during 2016-17, with 4.5 per cent exceeding the specified limit. This is an improvement on the previous year’s results that returned an exceedance rate of 7.2 per cent. However; our statutory sampling numbers for respirable crystalline silica are only around a third of those taken for respirable dust. This is an area for improvement that commands our attention.

While our efforts to educate industry about respiratory protective equipment (RPE) use to protect against dust exposure appears to be working, there remains a perception that if you work in an open cut mine then you aren’t at risk. The risk for open cut miners is very real and I cannot stress enough the seriousness of this issue. So far this year, the number of operators found not wearing RPE while being exposed to respirable crystalline silica has more than doubled since last year!

Diseases due to respirable crystalline silica exposure such as silicosis, lung cancer and chronic obstructive lung diseases are entirely preventable and we as an industry owe it to workers to be vigilant and constantly seek out ways to make further improvements for monitoring, identifying areas of risk and the provision of dust mitigation controls and education.

Coal Services is working hard to provide leadership in regards to improving health surveillance and dust monitoring to deal with the issue of silica dust in open cut mines. Historically there has been a data gap with respect to surface or open cut mining. Statutory dust monitoring has captured a limited amount of data but these trends have prompted the Coal Services Health & Safety Trust to fund research identifying which groups of surface miners are at highest risk of respirable coal dust and crystalline silica exposure and to quantify the levels of exposure.

The expectation is that this research will direct health surveillance programs tailored according to risk profiles. Right now, workplace strategies should be focused on evidence-based education, controlling dust at the source and correct use of respiratory protection equipment by all workers. Just because you can’t see the dust, doesn’t mean it is not there.

We urge all mining companies to continue to work closely with us and all of NSW’s key stakeholders to identify the best ways to keep our miners safe against emerging dust diseases, specifically our open cut workers.

Lucy Flemming
Managing Director/CEO