Coal dust

What is respirable coal dust? 

Coal dust is a powdered form of coal created through processing activities that involve crushing, grinding or pulverizing of coal. Coal dust can also be generated through mining, handling and transportation of coal. 

Respirable dust refers to very fine dust typically invisible to the naked eye that can reach the lower parts of the lung and potentially lead to development of occupational lung diseases. Further information on respirable dust is available in the Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants.

Who is at risk of exposure to respirable coal dust? 

Workers in the mining industry or anyone who is exposed to coal and dusts associated with coal mining work. Exposure to respirable coal dust is not limited to mining work. Workers can be exposed at ports during transportation, warehousing and loading of coal, or in foundry work. 

What is the WES for coal dust? 

The WES represents the concentration of respirable coal dust within a worker’s breathing zone that should not cause adverse health effects or undue harm. Compliance with the WES is required under Commonwealth, state and territory WHS laws.  

This means that workers must not be exposed to levels of respirable coal dust greater than 1.5 mg/m3 over an eight hour working day, for a five day working week. 

Why has the WES for respirable coal dust changed? 

From 1 October 2022, the WES for coal dust will halve from an eight hour time weighted average of 3 mg/m3 to 1.5 mg/m3. The new standard was agreed by work health and safety (WHS) ministers following an extensive expert review commissioned by Safe Work Australia. The reduction in the WES will provide better protection of workers from the adverse health effects associated with coal dust, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

When do workplaces need to comply with the reduced WES? 

The reduced WES takes effect when implemented in a jurisdiction. WHS ministers agreed that the reduced WES should be implemented in the jurisdictions no later than 1 October 2022. Contact your work health and safety regulator for further information.

What does the reduced WES mean for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs)? 

Exposure standards should not be considered as representing an acceptable level of exposure to workers. They establish a statutory maximum upper limit. To comply with the WHS legislation you must take all reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise exposure to respirable coal dust to a level well below the exposure standard. 

If you are a PCBU (for example, an employer or small business owner), you may need to implement additional control measures or make changes to your workplace procedures so that the WES for respirable coal dust is not exceeded. 

Coal dust lung diseases are entirely preventable by effective control of airborne dust. Here are four things PCBUs can do to help protect workers from exposure to respirable coal dust: 

  1. Assess the risk of respirable coal dust at your workplace. This might involve risk assessments of processes and the work environment, inspecting plant and equipment, observing the nature of work and consulting with workers about work activities, as well as reviewing incident reports.
  2. Review the control measures you have in place to minimise your workers’ exposure to respirable coal dust. 
  3. Arrange for air monitoring if you are uncertain of the concentration of respirable coal dust at your workplace.
  4. Talk to your workers and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) about the reduced WES, how it might impact your workplace through air and health monitoring, changes to control measures in the workplace and any new training your workers might need. 

What do workers need to know about the change?

Maintaining a safe workplace is everyone’s responsibility. PCBUs are required under WHS laws to ensure workers stay informed on any workplace exposure risks and the measures they may need to take to remain safe while at work. Workers must take reasonable care for their own health.

PCBUs should talk with their workers about the adverse health effects that can occur from exposure to respirable coal dust, that the WES limit has been recently halved to help reduce occurrence of lung disease, why air and health monitoring may be conducted, and any changes to the control measures that may be considered for the workplace.  

If workers have any questions on the change, they are encouraged to consult with their employer and/or HSRs on what the change may mean in their workplace. For further advice on local laws governing this change, you or your workers can contact the relevant work health and safety regulator

Supporting Information