The majority of early cases of mine dust lung diseases, including silicosis, often display no symptoms and so regular checks play a critical role in identifying and diagnosing these conditions before they worsen. With this in mind, a new service in Queensland is bringing these health checks to even the most remote corners of the state.
In 2020, Graham Bowcock went to his personal doctor for a routine checkup, asking about a pesky, persistent cough he had after his wife insisted he get it checked. It is because of his wife’s persistence that Mr Bowcock is still alive today and about to celebrate his 74th birthday.
Mr Bowcock was diagnosed with silicosis and lung cancer and was given no more than six months to live. That was unless he underwent emergency surgery to have the cancerous part of his lung removed. He did, and the surgery gave him an extra three to five years to live.
Speaking about his experience, Mr Bowcock said, “You realise you’re not totally bulletproof.”
Celia Bowcock can still remember the moment she was told her husband was going to die.
“It was devastating. I think I aged ten years in three minutes.”
The prevalence of silicosis
Mr Bowcock’s story is not uncommon, and recent months have seen an increase in silicosis diagnoses across the country, including in retired and former miners.
Mr Bowcock spent 37 years working in mineral mines in North West Queensland, where doctors believe prolonged dust exposure resulted in him contracting a mine dust lung disease.
Despite his time in the mines resulting in his silicosis diagnosis, Mr Bowcock said he “loved every moment”.
Following Mr Bowcock’s initial diagnosis and treatment, he reached out to Resources Safety and Health Queensland (RSHQ) after hearing about their former workers program. Through the RSHQ program, retired and former Queensland mine and quarry workers can access a free lung check every five years, for life.
The symptoms of silicosis often don’t appear until after many years of exposure and as such, those that no longer work in the industry and have at least three years’ experience in coal, mineral mines, or quarries are eligible for the program. These lung checks are continuing to detect mine dust lung disease cases as more and more former and retired workers get tested.
The Director of RSHQ’s Health Surveillance Unit, Evan Pengelly, said that in addition to free medical testing for former and retired mine and quarry workers, RSHQ can oftentimes assist with travel expenses too.
It was this health check program that helped Mr Bowcock confirm his mine dust lung disease diagnosis and connected him with the Mine Dust Health Support Service to access compensation and support.
Helping more people get tested
Three years on from Mr Bowcock’s initial diagnosis, accessibility to this free lung check program has expanded with the addition of a mobile health unit.
Operated by Heart of Australia in partnership with RSHQ and the Queensland Government, the HEART5 truck visits locations across regional and remote Queensland. It offers free screening for former workers to help detect mine dust lung diseases like coal worker’s pneumoconiosis – commonly known as black lung – and silicosis.
HEART5 is equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment to provide the required screening examinations, including a lung function test and chest X-ray, and any tests needed to investigate possible abnormalities, such as high-resolution CT scans.
Since its launch in February 2022, free checks on board HEART5 have helped detect 57 cases of mine dust lung disease diagnosed in former workers.
“RSHQ is proud to partner with Heart of Australia to deliver this free, lifesaving service,” Mr Pengelly said.
“I really urge all former and retired mine and quarry workers to have their free lung check.
“Lung disease can sometimes take ten-plus years or more to develop after a worker finishes in the industry. If you are diagnosed early, that means you can access treatment as soon as possible – potentially slowing the progression of disease – and apply for workers’ compensation entitlements.”
“These tests can be life changing for workers, like Graham,” Mr Pengelly said.
Following his own experiences, Mr Bowcock strongly encourages others like him to get checked.
“It costs you nothing, so do it. There is treatment available and you can add years to your life.”
Mr Bowcock had his surgery just two days before his 71st birthday. He is about to turn 74, and while he still has pain and struggles to breathe with certain exercises, he’s grateful for the time he has left, and so is Mrs Bowcock.
“If I hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have asked about the cough,” Mrs Bowcock said.
Her advice for other family members in a similar position is simple: “Just drag them to a doctor and get them tested.
“It’s better to find out it’s nothing than it’s too far down the track to do anything about it,” she said.
Booking in to get checked
Former mine workers can request a free lung health check at a local authorised doctor or onboard the mobile service by contacting the Mine Dust Health Support Service.
Any retired or former Queensland mine and quarry worker concerned about their lung health or experiencing symptoms is strongly encouraged to contact the Mine Dust Health Support Service to request an appointment.
Lung health checks are now compulsory in Queensland for all current workers employed at a mine or quarry, and workers are encouraged to speak with employers about when their next check is due.
“If you work in an area where there is silicosis or other mine dust lung diseases, I honestly believe you should get checked regularly because you need to get on top of it before it gets on top of you,” Mrs Bowcock said.
Workers experiencing symptoms or hoping to book an appointment can call the Mine Dust Health Support Service on 1300 445 715.