Silicosis case at Newmont's Boddington gold mine in Western Australia alarms unions, lung health expert
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A silicosis case at Australia's biggest gold mine has sparked calls by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and a respiratory health expert for further action against the incurable dust disease.   
A worker at the Boddington gold mine, owned by major American company Newmont, was recently diagnosed with early-stage silicosis as part of the company's regular health checks. 
The disease is caused by long-term exposure to silica dust, with engineered stone subject to national scrutiny as a source of the disease.
Curtin University occupational lung disease expert Fraser Brims said miners were also at risk and labelled the Boddington diagnosis a "huge concern".
"Any occupational lung disease, by definition, is avoidable. It shouldn't be happening, and certainly not in this day and age," Professor Brims said.
"The honest truth is I'm not surprised. I'm saddened and I'm very concerned for other workers."
Acting WorkSafe Commissioner Sally North confirmed the regulator had raised concerns about excessive dust at the mine, south-east of Perth, six times since 2020. 
She said the concerns were focused on the grinders at the mine, which crush rocks containing silica, allowing gold to be extracted.
"WorkSafe is reviewing the risk assessment and health monitoring procedures at the mine site," she said.
The AWU is campaigning for tougher national regulation on silica dust and a compensation fund for workers diagnosed with silicosis.
Hak Kim was in his mid-20s when he started noticing changes in his body while working on demolition sites in Sydney.
The union claims 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust every day.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union also said it would ban its members from working on engineered stone products by mid-2024, if the government did not step in.
WA secretary Brad Gandy said there had been a recent reduction in dust levels at Boddington, but called for a redoubling of efforts to protect workers from silicosis after the recent diagnosis.
He said introducing screening for contractors and former staff, as well as workers employed directly by Newmont who already had access, was a key priority. 
"October is National Safe Work month, it would be great if the mine operators took this opportunity to include their contractors and former workers in this CT scanning scheme," he said.
Newmont told Nine's WAToday it was reviewing the status of contractors in the monitoring program. 
In a statement to the ABC, a company spokeswoman said the silicosis case was detected after a CT scan, and the worker was not experiencing any symptoms due to early detection.
"The medical expert in this case has advised the team member that preventative measures will stop the disease from progressing," the spokeswoman said.
"The health and wellbeing of our workforce is a core Newmont value and our focus is on ensuring this team member receives the support, medical care and information needed."
The spokeswoman listed further safety measures used at the Boddington site, including mandatory respirators in at-risk areas and engineering controls.
The reality is these shiny stone benchtops are not a necessity and too many of our tradies who work with them are getting sick or dying.
"Newmont continues to partner with our workforce and regulators to identify, address and eliminate potentially hazardous working conditions and improve our dust management practices," she said.
Curtin University's Professor Brims said CT scans were the "gold standard" for detecting silicosis.
But he said safety measures onsite should be enough to prevent sickness.
"It's good that there's obviously quality health screening occurring, that's picking this up," he said.
"But I think really it raises many questions as to why it's happening."
A state government spokesperson said WorkSafe would continue to ensure the industry complied with work health and safety laws.
The spokesperson said one compensation claim for a miner diagnosed with silicosis had been accepted since 2018, with the worker exposed in the 1970s.
WA's work health and safety laws do not require health monitoring of former workers, and the spokesperson said there were no plans to introduce it.
"This is consistent with the national approach to this issue under model work health and safety laws," the spokesperson said.
"Workers who are seeking financial compensation for health issues relating to silica dust exposure can apply for workers' compensation or take civil action."
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