Work-related lung disease cases “tip of the iceberg”

A national register to record every case of work-related lung disease is one step closer, after the Senate called on the government to create it.

It follows lobbying by the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand and the Lung Foundation Australia, who say the register is needed to identify the true number of people contracting respiratory diseases as a result of workplace exposure.

The peak bodies say occupational lung disease is a huge but under-recognised problem in Australia, causing an estimated 345,000 cases of asthma, and over 1000 lung cancer and 1000 COPD deaths each year, along with 650 cases of malignant mesothelioma last year alone.

In a briefing document to the government, they argue that recent cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in Queensland and severe silicosis in men working with manufactured stone products are “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the burden of disease.

But a dearth of data means “there is no information regarding the true incidence of this disease” with stats drawn from compensation claims.

They call for all occupational lung diseases to be notifiable and recorded on the central database, arguing this would enable targeted prevention, early treatment and identification of those at risk.

According to respiratory physician Dr Susan Miles this type of record keeping already happens in Europe and the US.

The absence of such a system here means  “we can’t estimate costs of care or predict costs for the future, or identify where people are being exposed and therefore intervene”.

Many dust diseases are entirely preventable, said Dr Miles who is also a co-joint lecturer at the University of Newcastle, NSW.

“But once they are established they are not curable. Asthma control may improve if you remove yourself from environment, but it may not resolve altogether.”

Along with coal mines, nail salons are identified as potentially hazardous workplaces.

There is also a long list of allergens that cause asthma which workers are exposed to across diverse industries from healthcare to hospitality and agriculture.

Workplace exposure is believed to be behind 15% of new cases of asthma and 10 % of COPD, Dr Miles said.

In order to be implemented, the proposed register would need sign off by Health Minister Greg Hunt, along with the states and territories.

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