Black lung disease on the rise: Safe Work Australia

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of members. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 2 July, 2021 - 09:30
Industry news
National News

There has been a substantial increase in pneumoconiosis (especially coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung disease”) and silicosis from working with engineered stone, according to a recent Safe Work Australia report.

It also found there has been a decline in workers’ compensation claims for asbestos-related occupational lung diseases, such as asbestosis, as well as an increase in understanding of the role of occupational exposures and the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The Occupational lung diseases in Australia 2006-2019 report was prepared by the Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health and examines changes in the extent and incidence of occupational lung diseases since the 2006 report Occupational respiratory disease in Australia.

Occupational lung diseases are conditions of the respiratory system caused by workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals and dusts.

The report identifies industries and occupations where workers may be at risk of developing an occupational lung disease, such as the construction, mining and quarrying industries and those working with engineered stone.

“Occupational lung disease continues to be a major work health and safety concern in Australia,” said Safe Work Australia CEO Michelle Baxter, who noted the report highlighted a substantial increase in coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, as well as silicosis from working with engineered stone.”

“Not all hazards in the workplace are visible. Dusts, gases, fumes, or vapours can be invisible to the naked eye but can cause serious lung diseases,” said Baxter.

“It’s incredibly important to know what hazards exist at your workplace and how to eliminate and manage them.”

The report also suggested hypersensitivity pneumonitis, also known as extrinsic allergic alveolitis, may be grossly underestimated in Australia because of the lack of Australian data currently available.

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is an interstitial lung disease caused by an immune response to inhaled antigens.

Several substances can trigger an individual’s immune system, causing short- or long-term inflammation that makes it difficult for the lungs to work properly and can cause permanent damage.

Types of hypersensitivity pneumonitis include bird fancier’s lung, farmer’s lung, hot tub lung, humidifier lung and mushroom workers’ lung.

It is characterised by acute flu-like effects and in some cases can also lead to serious longer-term effects on lung function.

Another type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis, bagassosis, can develop in people working in sugar cane production, exposed to bagasse (sugar cane dust).

The report noted recent international estimates attributed 10 per cent of hypersensitivity pneumonitis cases to workplace exposures, suggesting hypersensitivity pneumonitis is not a rare occupational lung disease.

Evidence on the proportion of hypersensitivity pneumonitis is limited in Australia to a few case series reported by respiratory physicians, and the report noted no claims were lodged for hypersensitivity pneumonitis in workers’ compensation data between 2007–08 and 2016–17 period, although respiratory physicians reported a few cases among farmers.

The report said the establishment of a national dust disease registry to house data on diagnoses of occupational lung diseases will assist in providing a clearer picture of the full scale of the problem and improve future estimates of occupational lung diseases in Australia.