The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), an organisation of Bishops in Botswana, South Africa, and Eswatini, has filed a class action lawsuit against mining major BHP over lung diseases found in former and current employees.

SACBC, which serves the South African provinces of Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, said on Wednesday it had begun the process of filing a class action lawsuit against Australian multinational miner BHP, its subsidiary South32, and South African energy company Seriti.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 17 current and former mine workers, who came to the Catholic Church for help after contracting incurable coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The application for certification of the class action, originally brought by the SACBC’s Commission for Justice and Peace, accuses South32 of failing to provide its employees with “adequate training, equipment and a safe working environment”.

The application also argues that both diseases are caused by coal dust entering the lungs and are “wholly preventable” if the right measures are taken. “The applicants argue that South32 breached the legal duties owed to the miners by failing to implement statutorily mandated procedures and protections. As a result, the miners developed incurable lung diseases,” the complaint reads.

Cardinal-elect Stephen Brislin, the Archbishop of Cape Town, said in the application statement: “Ex-mine workers are no longer under trade unions and this renders them voiceless and incapable of demanding social justice for the sickness that they incurred while working in the mines. Very often workers do not have the means to seek legal recourse from large companies which have huge resources at their disposal.

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“The Church is always concerned about the well-being of people with whom we work and live. It is thus incumbent on the Church to give assistance where it can so that the rights of the vulnerable are respected and so that they can access compensation that is legally due to them. Many companies are amenable to settling such cases, but in some instances court action is necessary.”

A spokesperson for South32 confirmed with the Catholic News Agency that it has been served with an application for certification of a class action on behalf of mine workers in South Africa. “This matter is currently being considered by the business,” a spokesperson said. “We are unable to comment further at this point in time.”

South32, which has three mining operations in South Africa and employs approximately 500,000 people in the country, has already run into other legal trouble  this year. Last month, it was ordered to pay $2.9m (A$4.5m) in compensation after an investigation found one of its coal mines had been draining local drinking water to its facility over the last five years. The mine’s operator Illawarra Coal Holdings, a subsidiary of South32, admitted that it never had the licence to use any surface water supply for its mining activities.