Decline in miners’ lung function could indicate disease

Miners suffer from an increased decline in lung function every year compared to the general population, even when measured concentrates of dust and gases such as silica and diesel exhaust are below occupational limits.

A study by University of Western Australia’s (UWA) School of Population and Global Health assessed lung function change in all miners in Western Australia who had at least two lung health assessments three to five years apart from 1996 to 2013.

A total of 40,780 miners were included in the study, covering all geographical locations within Western Australia and all types of mining.

The study aimed to establish whether current mining practices and exposure standards were effective in protecting lung health.

“The differences we identified in lung function were small, but the implications for long-term exposure to these dusts and gases could be significant,” lead researcher and senior research fellow in the School of Population and Global Health at UWA Peter Franklin said.

“Our findings so far are consistent with a pattern of obstructive lung function. In other words, it could be the beginnings of lung disease — we certainly can’t rule it out. It is important, therefore, that the ongoing health of these miners is continuously assessed.”

Occupational lung diseases can take decades to develop and result from incremental changes over extended periods of time.

Lung health bodies such as the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) have been calling for more systematic monitoring of occupational lung diseases, and the creation of a national register to allow for early, country-wide notification.

“For an advanced country, we know remarkably little about the extent and risk factors for occupational diseases,” TSANZ president Allan Glanville said.

“Too often they come to our attention when it is too late. But we can take measures to address this.

“These findings make it emphatically clear that Australia needs more robust surveillance and other information systems to monitor the health of these miners.”

Australia needs to better document occupational disease, assist in guiding prevention programs and evaluate the effectiveness of such programs, according to Glanville.

“The workers of Australia deserve nothing less,” he concluded.