Breath of Life

SMI's Professor David Cliff is working to help stop deadly black lung disease before it begins.

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung, is a potentially fatal, irreversible lung disease caused by breathing in coal mine dust.

The culprit is respirable dust released during mining, which contains coal and other mineral particles that are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs, where they can block air passages and cause scarring of lung tissue.

CWP has two stages, simple and complicated. In the simple stage, small nodules develop in the lungs. At this stage, affected workers may be asymptomatic, or have shortness of breath and a chronic cough.

If workers continue to be exposed to high concentrations of respirable coal dust, the disease can cause chronic airflow limitation and progress to complicated CWP. This causes large, dense fibroids in the lungs that significantly reduce lung function and can be fatal.

Because there is no cure, the only way to save people from CWP is by preventing them from breathing in the dangerous respirable coal dust in the first place.

This prevention is the aim of a joint research initiative between The University of Queensland, the Queensland Government’s Safety in Mines Testing and Research Station (Simtars) and New South Wales-based industry organisation Coal Services, with funding from the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP).

The ‘Improving respirable coal dust exposure monitoring and control’ project, led by Professor David Cliff from UQ’s Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre (SMI-MISHC), has two main aims: to establish the best ways of measuring mine workers’ exposure to respirable dusts, and then using these measurements to test the effectiveness of different exposure reduction methods.

Nikky LaBranche, Principal Mining Engineer, says the project goes to the heart of Simtars’s remit to improve the health of safety of mine workers in Queensland.

A size comparison of respirable dust particles
(Photo credit: iStock/azerberber).

“Ultimately, this is about advancing the introduction of broad-scale, real-time, personal monitoring of respirable dusts to improve health outcomes for the mining workforce.”