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Machinery working in a dusty, open-cut coal mine.

From working on site all day to sleeping at camp or a nearby town, coal miners are being exposed to more harmful dust than previously thought, according to new analysis.

Key points:

  • New research finds that as coal production increases, levels of harmful dust particles in areas nearby also rise
  • Unions want any environmental exposure to be considered when setting exposure limits for workers
  • The Resources Council says the health of workers and their families is the industry’s top priority

It has prompted renewed calls for independent on-site dust monitoring and a reduction in the occupational exposure limit for mine workers.

Associate Professor Gunther Paul from James Cook University cited the work of four scientists who looked at community-based air-monitoring stations in Queensland and New South Wales, along with 10 years of data from the national pollutant inventory.

They used the data to estimate the impact coal-mining activity was having on microscopic levels of dust in areas nearby.

Dr Paul said they found as production increased, levels of harmful dust particles, metals and nitrogen oxides also increased.

“This increased production of coal produces an increase in pollution, and [that] can be measured in communities — so there is a correlation,” he said.

“We found there is significantly higher PM10 in the mining region compared to south-east Queensland or similar areas in New South Wales.”

PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter (a human hair is about 100 micrometres).

“Unfortunately, we only have four [air-monitoring] sensors in the coal-mining region, we do need more data in order to better understand how increased coal production and increased production of pollutants eventually impacts the households in the communities,” Dr Paul said.

“We also saw that from those environmental monitoring stations, significant time periods are missing which needed to be filled, so it’s very difficult to provide a coherent picture at this time, and we do need more measurements.”

The study found the Hunter Valley in New South Wales was the largest producer of PM10 emissions from coal; four postcodes within Queensland’s Central Highlands rounded out the top five.

Central Queensland residents have claimed a connection between mining and air quality for years.

Locals in Moranbah called for better monitoring and testing after the Department of Environment and Science attributed elevated levels of PM10 to bushfire activity, low rainfall and wood-burning fireplaces.

Health impacts on workers underestimated

The study was intended to determine whether the exposure limit for miners — 2.5µg/m³ (per cubic metre of air) — was adequate.

Stephen Smyth from the CFMEU said Australia should adopt a level of 1.5µg/m³ in line with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“If you’re increasing someone’s exposure to dust and the control measures are ineffective, then you increase that person’s risk of getting a mine-dust lung disease,” he said.

“A person goes to work, comes home and can be living close by, and they can continue to get some sort of level of dust exposure.”

Mr Smyth called on companies to do more.

“Mining’s the life blood and it’s critical, but at the end of the day they have a social responsibility,” he said.

“[Monitoring has] got to be done independently as well, because if it’s not, there’s not a lot of faith and trust in the system.”

Dr Paul said the research also supported a change in legislation.

“So there is some understanding that the occupational exposure limit may be too high in Australia and we would like to understand which other factors impact on this exposure limit,” he said.

“If there is additional exposure of miners in the communities where they live, then that indicates the exposure limit will have to be corrected and will have to be set lower.

“It’s likely that we need to change regulations and possibly include environmental exposure to be one factor that contributes to the assessment of risk for workers and how much they are permitted to be exposed to coal dust.

“The occupational exposure limit is based on an eight-hour work shift; if workers work more than 40 hours a week, then the occupational exposure limit is currently reduced to 2.35µg/m³.

“In a very similar way, we could make assumptions about where workers live and then consider the environmental exposure in order to further reduce the occupational exposure limit.

“This would have to be considered in amended regulations and standards and would have to go through the legal processes.”

In a statement, Queensland Resources Council chief executive Ian Macfarlane said the health of workers, their families and communities was the industry’s top priority.

“Exposure to particulates is continuously monitored and regularly reviewed by industry and the State Government,” he said.

“The resources sector in Queensland operates and monitors emissions within the strict conditions of each company’s environment authority and air quality legislation to protect the environment and human health.”