BIG READ: Port workers may have "sleeping cases" of disease
A FORMER Abbot Point senior executive is concerned there are port workers who have "sleeping cases" of black lung disease.
BJ Davison appeared via phone as part of the final rounds of Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis select committee hearings.
Mr Davison told the Brisbane hearing on Wednesday that as well as investigating processes at underground coal mines and open cut mines, the parliamentary inquiry should expand its scope to port operations.
"We have had a few inquiries from the floor from the workers at Abbot Point, querying whether or not they may be at risk, because obviously it is quite topical at the moment with CWP," Mr Davison told the hearing.
As of December 13, 2016 there have been 18 confirmed cases of black lung disease - many of these from Bowen Basin mines.
Mr Davison explained the ports process to the committee, made up of Bundamba MP Jo-Ann Miller, Whitsunday MP Jason Costigan, Barron River MP Craig Crawford, Greenslopes MP Joe Kelly, Dalrymple MP Shane Knuth and Southern Downs MP Lawrence Springborg as well as Barrister Ben McMillan.
"I wanted to explain to the committee the coal process, the coal chain through the port from when the coal arrives to when it leaves Australia, and to point out where there may be some risks for people at the various stages of the coal chain and what controls may or may not be in place depending on the port and the way they handle their time," Mr Davison said.
He then explained the main stages of coal process at ports - the first being inloading, where coal is unloaded from trains at the port.
He said while workers today now unload the coal via an air-conditioned operations room, the process for "some older guys who have worked in the industry for a while" was they used to manually open a wagon door. Coal would then drop from wagons into the vault and coal dust plumes would come up exposing workers to dust.
"You can imagine the guys-plenty of them are still around-who manually opened those wagon doors with a lever," Mr Davison said. "They are the ones I am a little concerned about."
The next stage in the process he explained was the coal goes by way of conveyors and transfer points from the vault out into the stockyard via conveyer systems, where workers are again exposed to coal.
The next stage, the stacking of the coal via bucket wheels or drop conveyers, is another stage where coal exposure was a factor, Mr Davison said. However, this was a "no go zone" for most workers, as all ports had measures in place to avoid "not having people where coal is falling in the stockyard".
"If we take Abbot Point, for example, that coal is picked up by a bucket wheel excavator. That bucket wheel is automated and it is controlled by someone in a control room 500 metres away," Mr Davison explained.
"There is no risk of personnel coughing up a gutful of coal dust in that format."
Other ports aren't as hands-off, with dozer operators working with coal in a closer capacity at some sites.
"Gladstone is one example where they might have 20 or 30 dozers pushing coal," he said. "They really are working right in amongst it. There is a lot of mechanical movement-large dozers pushing a lot of coal, a lot of coal getting pulverised, a lot of coal being mechanically moved by people who are right in it."
Loading the coal onto the ship was another risk of coal exposure, he said.
"That is one area of concern, I guess: anyone who is standing on the ship deck near ship hatches during coal-loading operations where there is a lot of fines pluming up out of the hold of the ship..." Mr Davison said.
"Those persons may or not be at risk. Typically they will stand upwind to keep themselves out of harm's way, but you cannot rely on that all the time for that to happen. Sometimes they do get covered in coal."
Sampling and testing
Mr Davison said Abbot Point had regular occupational hygienists doing sampling via the company GCG.
"We would get them in every three months to take various samples not just for dust but also for noise, light and various other occupational hygiene hazards," he said.
"I would be satisfied that the controls are adequate but I think there is still more to be done about those areas of concern that I mentioned, particularly some of the older workers who may not have been as well protected in the past but are still working in the industry.
"What I am concerned about is undiagnosed instances of CWP in some of the older workers."
Mr Davison said it wasn't just people operating the port and moving the coal that may be at risk of black lung disease.
"There are also maintenance personnel at every stage of this process," he said.
Whitsunday MP Jason Costigan asked Mr Davison if, prior to him leaving his position after the transition from Glencore to Adani ownership, he was happy with the CWP management plan in place for Abbot Point.
Mr Davison said there was no such plan.
"We certainly have all the risks identified that I have mentioned to you for our port in our risk assessment, but they are not necessarily wrapped up neatly in a CWP management plan," he said.
"Hence my recommendation is that I think it would be a good idea for ports to specifically consider this risk."
Mr Costigan said before modern technology, there was an old-fashioned way of getting rid of coal off the trains and asked Mr Davison if he would be surprised if a number of those workers at the port were diagnosed with CWP.
"I certainly would not be shocked at all," Mr Davison answered.
"I do not think these guys are anywhere near, for example, as at risk as an underground worker."
Mr Costigan suggested the parliamentary committee visit ports to see first-hand the potential risks to coal dust exposure workers face.
"My suggestion would be to go to two, and Abbot Point could be one, as long as you look at the different reclaim processes," Mr Davison said.
"That is what I would look at- one where it is picked up by bucket wheels, for example, Abbot Point; and another one where they push into coal valves, for example, Gladstone.
"It is a bit of an eye-opener sometimes at Gladstone if they are loading multiple ships. There are a lot of dozers in a stockyard and a lot of dust, as opposed to an automated bucket wheel that is picking up coal controlled by a remote control room."
The risk to train drivers
Southern Downs MP Lawrence Springborg brought up his own concerns about train drivers transporting coal among those who may be at risk of having contracted black lung disease over the years.
"One of our big challenges of course has been trying to identify how endemic this really is because it has not really been properly looked for and even when it has been seen it has not been noticed because of the fact that people did not want CWP to exist," Mr Springborg said.
Mr Davison suggested if the committee was concerned about those in the rail industry having undiagnosed black lung disease they should look into it further.
"It is possible with rail and loco drivers, but I think we would be drawing a really long bow there," Mr Davison said.
"Having said that, why not do some studies? Why not put some dust-collecting devices on them and on their locos and get a real picture of it?
"You would probably find that loco drivers who check their trains and do their walk-along inspections and all the rest of it might have coal fines blowing off the top and onto them, but we are not talking about respirable coal dust again."
Mr Davison said the dust that most loco drivers would be exposed to wouldn't be a health risk.
"When you talk about them going through, say, a dump station at a port, they are nowhere near the coal flume that is coming out of the grates.
"Their locos are well and truly through and out the other side of the shed and before you know it they are hundreds of metres away.
"I will hazard a guess right now and say that you are going to find exposure for rail workers but they are extremely low-if any more than anyone else out there."
Mr Davison again raised concerns about some of the "older guys" in the industry who may have "copped a gutful" of coal dust that have slipped under the radar.
"I think it could be something sleeping to be honest," he said, adding that he'd like to see some of the veterans of the industry undergoing proper black lung x-ray testing.
"We could check these guys who have been operating cabs of machines that were not too flash, or opening wagon doors manually, or working down in vaults or in underground pick-up conveyer systems in enclosed environments without wearing face masks and things like that to see whether or not we have any sleeping cases there that are going to come out and bite us," Mr Davison said.
The parliamentary select committee will take their findings from the rounds of regional hearings and report to the Legislative Assembly by April 12.