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BLACK LUNG: Youngest victim has had disease for nine years

The youngest miner to be diagnosed with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis could have had coal workers’ pneumoconiosis for nine years.

Steve Mellor, 39, spoke about his recent diagnosis on ABC’s 7.30 report last night.

“I’m angry. Very angry,” he said on the program.

“Angry at the mining industry. At the doctors that let this slip by, and at the radiologists that weren’t checking for what they were supposed to be checking for.”

Mr Mellor had taken time off work as a coal miner to take care of his ill father. The news of the return of the deadly lung disease prompted him to get a check up – an action he said he often regrets.

He was diagnosed with black lung, despite getting the all-clear from regular medical checks throughout his career.

“I hesitated even getting my chest X-ray, it was just a spur of the moment thing and at times I wish I didn’t,” he said.

“I was devastated at first. I was processing the fact that I had pretty much lost my job and any future career that I would ever have again in the mining industry.

“I’m ticketed to drive almost every machine underground, and now with the uncertainty we’ve got, I don’t know what I can do.

“We’ve got no future and no retraining. Nobody wants to know anything about us, they just told us to leave the industry and that’s as far as it’s gone.”

Steve said his work colleagues are too afraid to get tested, because they could end up jobless with nowhere to go.

One of the most shocking reveals on the ABC program, was that Mr Mellor could have contracted the disease early on in his 11-year career.

His radiologists discovered a five-year-old digital X-ray that showed presence of black lung, but when they dug a little deeper, an older film X-ray revealed he could have had it for nine years.

“… that also goes against everything they have said about the mining industry that it’s long term dust exposure – I’ve got it within two to three years of working underground,” Mr Mellor said.

CFMEU Queensland District President Steve Smyth said it is a “perfect storm”.

Doctors haven’t done their job. Radiologists haven’t done their job. Coal companies haven’t done their jobs. And of course, the health surveillance unit and the Government, through its departments, have failed every coal mine worker past and present in this state,” he said in the program.

Between the dust levels, high exposure to workers, there’s no sampling in place, the screening system hasn’t worked, the checks and balances haven’t worked, the spirometry hasn’t worked, the whole lot is a complete debacle.

“And it’s going to cost workers their lives, and in fact, it has cost workers their lives. It’s only going to get worse.”

Queensland Resources Council CEO Michael Roche, who has recently announced his retirement from the role, told 7.30 reporters that he was “appalled” that the system had failed.

When asked why coal companies haven’t been more vigilant, he said:

“Well, if you’re a coal company and your sending your workers off to be testing every five years and it is all coming up clear, no identification of pneumoconiosis, it is probably reasonable to believe that your systems are working.”

According to a review of the health scheme lead by Monash University’s Professor Malcolm Sim, released this week,  there was a “major system failure at virtually all levels” and “clear deficiencies”.

It concluded that “a major overhaul of the design and operation of the respiratory component of the current Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme is necessary”.

Today, a day after the program was aired, Natural Resources and Mines Minister Dr Anthony Lynham announced a “three-pronged attack” on black lung disease.

The three key action areas include prevention, including stricter dust management and publishing dust levels regularly; early detection through better screening – with strong support from the state’s underground coal mine companies and doctors; and a safety net for miners with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

Eleven Queensland coal miners have been diagnosed with black lung disease since late last year, including four just this month, but the union said this could be the “tip of the iceberg”.

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