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Safely returning to work after a mine dust lung disease diagnosis

Mine dust lung disease (MDLD) is a broad term used to identify a range of work-related lung diseases, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and silicosis, caused by exposure to harmful levels of respirable dust at mines and quarries.

There are many roles within the mining and quarrying industry suitable for workers who have been diagnosed with a MDLD to return to work as long as their health and safety can be managed with the right precautions.

Returning to work with a MDLD is different to traditional return to work arrangements because the worker will require ongoing and periodic health monitoring. Additional health and safety measures will also be required to mitigate dust exposure and to understand if these measures are working effectively.

There are expert medical guidelines to assist with decisions on safe return to work, including what levels of dust exposure are appropriate for workers with disease and ongoing health monitoring of workers. The guidelines provide a best practice and evidenced-based framework which considers the individual circumstances of the worker’s MDLD, including its severity and the best outcome that can be achieved.

The guidelines outline:

  • the recommended process for carrying out a workplace occupational dust exposure assessment for a worker diagnosed with a MDLD
  • requirements for enhanced medical surveillance for a worker with a MDLD
  • return to work recommendations for a worker based on the severity of their disease
  • workplace exposure adjustments for non-standard work cycles
  • psychosocial factors impacting on return to work.

The guidelines are best used to facilitate discussion about return to work between a worker and their family, employer, insurer and medical specialists. It is also important to recognise that any decision about return to work is made in consultation between these parties and under the guidance of a respiratory physician.

  • Workers – so they can be involved in planning their safe return to work and understand what roles and environments they can perform work.
  • Employers – to assist them take all reasonable steps to provide the worker with rehabilitation1 and understand when workers can safely return to work, to what roles and the environments they can perform work.
  • Insurers – to assist them take all reasonable steps to secure rehabilitation2 and understand and support suitable return to work options.
  • Medical specialists – to guide decisions for return to work options.

[1] Section 228 of the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003

[2] Section 220 of the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003

The guidelines apply to:

  • coal workers’ pneumoconiosis
  • mixed dust pneumoconiosis
  • silicosis
  • diffuse dust-related fibrosis
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease e.g. emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

They do not apply to workers with dust lung diseases related to artificial stone fabrication because of the high levels of respirable crystalline silica associated with these processes.

The guidelines do not change existing rehabilitation and return to work obligations or health and safety duties that apply to workers, employers, mine operators and workers’ compensation insurers.

Each of these parties need to work together to facilitate the best possible outcome for the worker – see responsibilities outlined below.

Worker

  • Be involved with the planning of your return to work from the start.
  • Take part in all rehabilitation designed to assist your return to work – in some cases this may mean returning to other roles or work environments suitable for a worker with a MDLD.

Insurer

  • Coordinate the rehabilitation and return to work in consultation with the worker, employer, and medical specialists.
  • Develop a tailored rehabilitation and return to work plan for the worker that identifies the worker’s goals and capacity and promotes communication between these parties.
  • Ensure the written plan is reviewed at appropriate intervals.
  • May arrange and fund any testing that is in addition to employer requirements for ongoing monitoring.

Employer (incl. labour hire agency)

  • Provide the worker with rehabilitation and return to work.
  • Identify the roles and work environments that the worker with a MDLD can safely perform or return to.
  • Make reasonable adjustments and workplace/environmental modifications to accommodate the work exposure restrictions and limitations.
  • Provide relevant and necessary information to the insurer to assist in managing the return to work of the worker (e.g., information about dust levels).

Resources Safety and Health Queensland regulates Queensland’s resources industries and enforces safety and health laws which require mine operators to ensure exposure to dust is within acceptable limits and as low as reasonably achievable. They also regulate mandatory respiratory health checks for mine and quarry workers.

Workers' Compensation Regulatory Services regulates the Queensland’s workers’ compensation scheme. This includes monitoring the compliance and performance of insurers, conducting legal and medical dispute resolution and providing information and education about the scheme.

Contacts

If your company is not self-insured, please contact WorkCover Queensland on 1300 362 128.

BHP Billiton Limited, Glencore Queensland Limited and South32 Cannington Pty Ltd are self-insured for workers’ compensation in Queensland – their contact numbers can be found here.

Contact the Mine Dust Heath Support Service for further information on 1300 445 715 or email info@minedusthealthsupport.com