Where coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) is concerned, prevention is by far the best medicine.

This is why ensuring that every Queensland miner is protected from exposure to high levels of respirable dust is the most crucial action we can take to prevent CWP.

man in high visibility clothing, wearing a helmet and face mask, using a high pressure hose

Understanding the dust hazard in mines

coal workers overlooking open-cut coal mine pit

By its very nature, the cutting and breaking of rocks during coal mining operations produces dust. But some equipment and methods generate more dust than others. This means that across your shift, different jobs come with different levels of respirable dust exposure.

Where CWP is concerned, prevention is by far the best medicine.
In underground mines

Due to a higher production volume and an enclosed workspace, underground miners have a higher risk of dust exposure, especially in longwall operations, because:

  • methods like pre-draining remove moisture, making the coal more prone to generating airborne respirable dust
  • operation of the shearer and advancing roof supports are major contributors to airborne dust on longwalls
  • face slabbing, operation of armoured face conveyor (AFC), coal crushers, and discharge of beam stage loaders (BSL) to the conveyor belt produce additional dust
  • workers located on the return side of the shearer and/or advancing supports are at a higher risk
  • operation of the cutting heads, roof bolting and loading of coal are major contributors of airborne dust in development panels
  • cutting stone roof or floor in stone bands in the seam, or during roof bolting or drilling into sandstone, mudstone or dry drilling can result in increased silica exposure.
In open-cut mines

Most workers' risk level is reduced by working in enclosed, air-conditioned cabins. However, you are at risk of exposure to both coal and silica dust when:

  • you perform tasks outside of a sealed cabin, particularly where drilling has recently occurred or is occurring
  • you work in areas where fine drill tailings remain on the ground
  • you conduct drilling or shot-firing operations, or dry drilling
  • cabin sealing and ventilation measures fail or are ineffective
  • you don't keep the cabin clean by wet wiping surfaces, as dust/mud from boots adds to the problem.
  • you mill and/or grind coal for sample preparation in laboratories
  • you conduct maintenance tasks on equipment and components that are coated in accumulated fine dust.
Due to these risks, CWP is more common in underground miners, although miners that work above ground have contracted the disease and are at risk where dust levels are not controlled.

Controlling the dust hazards in mines

Effective dust control procedures will vary from mine to mine, depending on work areas, daily conditions and the type of coal being extracted.

Your site senior executive (SSE) is responsible for determining the most effective control methods for your work site.

Hierarchy of controls

Hierarchy of controls

The hierarchy of controls model should be used in the risk management process on your site to plan how to eliminate or minimise respirable dust hazards. Using a pyramid shape, it ranks different types of dust control measures.

Measures towards the top of the pyramid are the most effective and provide the highest level of protection and reliability. These include:

  • eliminating the hazard
  • substituting a safer alternative
  • isolating or separating people from the hazard.

The controls towards the bottom of the pyramid are still useful in reducing the dust hazard, but are not as reliable. These include:

  • redesigning or modifying equipment
  • using training and rules to reduce risk
  • using fit-for-purpose respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

The mine’s focus should always be on the higher level controls.

Site supervisor recording information on clipboard

To find out more about dust management on your site, speak to your site safety and health representative or the safety and health department.

Dust hazard control methods

Depending on your site, you may see some or all of the following dust controls in use:

Elimination and control

  • Elimination or strict control of tasks that place workers on the return side of the shearer and/or advancing supports.
  • Elimination or strict control of jobs that place workers on the vent side of the continuous miner.

Sealing and spraying

  • Application of water to prevent dust from becoming airborne - water will not control dust once it is airborne, so it should be applied at the point of dust production.
  • Sealing and/or application of water at transfer points, beam stage loaders and crushers to isolate or capture dust sources.
  • Sealing and/or treatment of surfaces to control dust levels along travelling roads.

Mechanical measures

  • Scrubber systems on continuous miners, longwall beam stage loaders and crushers and at conveyor belt discharges.
  • Ventilation at the coalface through a brattice wing or ducting - coal miners should never work on the return side of dust generating tasks.

To find out more about dust management on your site, speak to your site safety and health representative (SSHR) or the safety and health department.

For more information about dust control in underground coal mines, see Recognised standard 15: Underground respirable dust control (PDF, 2.3MB).

Dust monitoring

Worker recording results from dust monitoring

CWP is more common in underground miners but all miners are at risk where dust levels are not controlled.

Respirable dust is too small to see, so you can’t identify hazardous dust levels just by looking.

New laws have placed stricter standards on mines’ monitoring and reporting responsibilities. This requires regular reporting of personal respirable dust monitoring records to the Mines Inspectorate.

Dust monitoring results for your site should be clearly displayed on a noticeboard on every site so you can see if dust control measures are working. Each coal mine worker who participates in dust monitoring should also be given a copy of their individual results. You can also see industry-wide quarterly data on respirable dust levels online and in the annual Queensland mines and quarries safety performance and health reports.

The new laws to protect miners’ health mean that your mine must take action any time the level of respirable coal dust in the air exceeds the allowable level. They must:

  • notify a Mines Inspector
  • notify their local SSHR and ISHR
  • investigate reasons for the breach
  • make improvements to systems, where necessary
  • resample to demonstrate the issue has been resolved.

When dust levels exceed allowable levels

If maximum allowable levels are exceeded in any sample:

  • Your SSE must notify the Mines Inspectorate, ISHR and SSHR within 24 hours of the exceedance.
  • The SSE should notify your appointed medical adviser (AMA) if you have experienced excessive exposure and a health assessment may be required.
  • If a second sample taken 2 weeks later still shows dust levels above the acceptable threshold, the SSE must issue follow-up notifications. This may likely trigger further action from the Mines Inspectorate.

For information on how monitoring programs should be run on-site, see Recognised standard 14: monitoring respirable dust in coal mines (PDF, 615.6KB).

What can I do?

While your employer is responsible for most dust monitoring and hazard controls on-site, there are important steps you can take towards ensuring your own safety:

  1. Ensure your dust monitor is worn correctly and complete your dust monitoring log sheet with all relevant details.
  2. Keep an eye on reported dust levels.
  3. Understand the dust controls on your site including any triggered action response plans (TARPS) and restricted zones.
  4. Talk to your shift supervisor, SSHR or safety and health department if you have questions and concerns.
  5. Always wear your PPE correctly. Stay clean shaven if you wear a disposable mask or half face piece negative pressure respirator, to provide a tight seal.

Personal dust monitoring

From time to time, you may be selected to take dust samples during your shift. You will be required to wear a small battery powered unit consisting of a pump connected to a sampling unit (or cyclone), which will be clipped to your shirt, within your breathing zone.

You must receive instructions before you wear a personal dust monitor. They are ineffective if not used correctly.

worker wearing dust sampling apparatus

  1. The sampling head is positioned within the breathing zone, a 300mm hemisphere around the nose and mouth.
  2. A steady stream of air is drawn through the sampling unit by the sampling pump, which is worn around the waist.
  3. Respirable sized dust particles are collected on a filter and weighed.
  4. The filter is sent to an accredited laboratory for analysis of respirable coal dust and silica. This information is used to calculate the time-weighted average concentrations recorded during the shift.
  5. The results are an average for the shift and take into account periods of high and low dust exposure.

Respirable dust monitoring programs must be carried out by properly qualified people on-site. These qualifications must be recognised by the Coal Mining Safety and Health Advisory Committee.

Total exposure

Remember that a key factor in the development of coal mine dust lung disease is the total amount of respirable dust that a person has inhaled during their working life, not exposure to a high level of dust in a single event.

worker wearing PPE

You can slow or stop the progress of the disease by limiting your exposure to respirable dust at work and at home.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE is your last line of defence against respirable dust.

Using your PPE correctly is an important action you can take to protect yourself if higher levels of control, such as isolation or elimination, should fail.

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is the name given to equipment that is specifically designed to protect your respiratory tract, including your lungs. RPE requirements will vary from site to site, and shift to shift, depending on:

  • type of mine (underground/open cut)
  • type of coal/rock being extracted
  • your job assignment and conditions
  • recent dust monitoring results.

RPE on your site

Your site’s RPE program should include:

  • regular team training covering the correct selection, use and maintenance of all the types of RPE recommended on site
  • fit testing for all workers required to wear RPE
  • clearly defined high-risk tasks and areas (such as cutting stone in development, operating on the longwall), which may require compulsory use of RPE
  • regular audits of RPE use during identified high-risk tasks.

Always wear the recommended equipment, and if you have concerns, talk to your supervisor and request additional protection.

Many mines now have a clean-shave policy for RPE. A clean shave helps create a good seal between the mask and your face. Even without a policy, you should consider staying clean shaven if you wear a mask - it’s an important personal measure you can take to protect yourself from respirable dust.

For more information on the correct use of RPE, download Respiratory protective equipment at work - a practical guide.

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