Mine worker respiratory illness highlights need for PPE

A mobile plant operator at the Maules Creek coal mine in New South Wales has been diagnosed with a lung disease after working in the mining and non-mining sectors for more than 35 years.

The operator spent half of his career working in civil works projects, with the remainder of his time spent in the open cut coal mining sector.

Towards the end of his career in civil works, he operated mobile plant equipped with enclosed cabins and air conditioning systems.

These air conditioning units had often become clogged and stopped working, according to the New South Wales Resources Regulator.

The worker was also involved in mine construction and the extraction of coal from 1997 to 2013, during which time a strong message about dust protection was ignored in practice.

“He never wore a dust mask in this period and was never asked to wear one,” the regulator stated.

“At (some work locations), he operated equipment with poorly maintained seals and ineffective or non-operational air conditioning units.”

Prior to the diagnosis, the worker suffered from a rapid heart rate caused by breathing difficulties, after which he was diagnosed with contracted pulmonary fibrosis (due to scarring of the lung) and emphysema (shortness of breath).

A physician reported last year that his emphysema was predominantly caused by cigarette smoking, but it was likely that his “dust exposure at work made a contribution” to its development.

The physician couldn’t determine the cause of his pulmonary fibrosis.

“(It) is believed to be coal and silica dust exposure,” the resources regulator stated.

“This is due to ‘his history of significant dust exposure, CT appearances and absence of any other likely cause.’”

The worker is presently unfit for work and required to undergo long-term treatment.

The regulator advised mine operators to review and verify the adequacy of their hazard management plan for airborne contaminants, including the hierarchy of controls, mine ventilation and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Workers must utilise the lower order control of wearing respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to complement higher order controls in the workplace,” the regulator stated.

“Existing and former mine workers are encouraged to attend periodic health screening and to contact their medical practitioner if they have any concerns about their respiratory health.”