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

Did black lung go under the radar?

BLACK lung disease in Queensland could have gone under the radar for decades and miners who have worked in the industry since the 1980s may have the disease and not know it, an inquiry heard on Friday.

In 1984, a report into black lung found there were 75 black lung diagnoses and suspected cases that year.

But there were none reported until last year when the first of 16 cases in Queensland was confirmed.

MPs grilled bosses in the Department of Natural Resources and Mines during a parliamentary inquiry briefing on Friday, questioning why there had been a significant gap in the disease since the 1980s.

Southern Downs MP Lawrence Springborg asked whether the department thought it was strange that there was an epidemic in 1980s and then it all went away.

He also asked whether this was a re-emergence of the disease, or whether the disease had not been competently diagnosed for years.

The department's director-general James Purtill said they were struggling to find information on what occurred between the 1984 report and the coal workers scheme that came in 10 years after it.

A parliamentary committee is investigating coal workers' pneumoconiosis (black lung) and is due to report to Parliament by April.

During a public briefing in Brisbane on Friday, Bundamba MP Jo-Ann Miller accused the department of archiving x-rays of 100,000 or more miners without reading them.

Mineral and energy resources deputy director-general Rachael Cronin said miners' medical assessments would have been examined by GPs and medical professionals and then sent to the department for storage.

"So it's possible that there's a significant number of confirmed cases that are basically tucked away in the archives somewhere that no one really knows a lot about?” Mr Springborg asked.

Mr Purtill said they would be able to explain later what they had been doing to assess whether that risk existed.

Mirani MP Jim Pearce also raised concerns about how the doctors who assessed miners were employed by the mining companies.

It was questioned whether doctors would have diagnosed a miner with black lung but not told the worker.

But Ms Cronin said doctors had robust ethical processes that they took very seriously.

During the briefing, Ms Miller also questioned whether the department had been in touch with the 75 coal miners who had been diagnosed in 1984.

"I understand that at the time those individuals were referred to medical advisers. We haven't followed up with them specifically in this recent period to my knowledge,” Ms Cronin said.

Ms Miller asked the director-general if he considered that a failure.

"This report has in fact been around since 1984 and as you said, there is a so called re-emergence of black lung which may or may not be right, and yet no one from your department has gone back to basically follow up on those men and women who may have been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis from 1984?”

Mr Purtill said it was difficult for him to answer that and have that information available.

Ms Miller asked for a report with details of every single miner who was diagnosed with black lung from 1984 and whether or not they were followed up.

She also asked the department whether documents had been destroyed; a question which Mr Purtill took on notice and will report back on.