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The United Mineworkers of America is asking the federal government to issue emergency rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside coal mines.

UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts sent a letter this week to the Mine Safety and Health Administration asking for the agency to issue emergency standards for disinfection, social distancing, and access to protective gear inside coal mines. 

MSHA currently points coal mine owners to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration’s COVID-19 guidelines, but the union says there should be different standards for the confined work spaces inside coal mines. 

The union says its members are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus because they work in tight spaces, riding elevators and transport cars into work zones. 

“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” Roberts said in the letter. “They get dressed, travel down the elevator together…work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment, and use the same shower facilities.”

The letter also states that many miners are older and suffer from underlying health conditions, like pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung disease, which may “greatly exacerbate the severity of the symptoms related to COVID-19.” In addition, most live in rural areas “that do not provide the same access to healthcare centers as workers in urban areas. This makes miners one of the most vulnerable populations for the virus.”

The union is requesting a suite of “best practices” be implemented, including that disinfecting wipes and spray be available in common eating, changing, showering, and bathroom areas; that standards are established for disinfecting equipment between shifts; and that additional nitrile gloves and N95 respirators be made available. 

What we want to make sure that the companies do is just regular sensible things like putting additional disinfectant in the areas where miners congregate, where they take showers, where they change clothes,” said Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman. “The main thing is that these regulations need to be developed right away. They need to be applied right away. Because what we’re seeing out there is while some companies are trying to do the right thing, there is no consistent standard in place.”

The union represents about 25 percent of the country’s 50,000 coal miners, including 450 at Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Pa.

Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, an industry trade group, said in an email that federal guidance was “always welcomed during these uncertain times” and that her group “has communicated with our producer members to ensure CDC recommended guidelines are implemented at our mine sites and facilities.”

Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, an industry group, said in an email the group was still reviewing the UMWA letter but “we absolutely share their concerns about miner safety.”

“We are working to adjust to these unprecedented times that present challenges never before encountered,” Burke said. “We are following government guidelines with distancing measures being taken, increased cleaning schedules in-place, and limits on gatherings of groups.”

Burke said the industry trade group was working “to develop a list of recommended regulatory updates” to improve miner safety in the time of the coronavirus. 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.