Two unions are suing the federal agency in charge of mine safety, demanding it impose emergency rules to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among coal miners.
The United Mine Workers of America and the United Steelworkers are asking a federal court to force the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue the rules, as coal mines begin to pick up production to meet the demands of summer air-conditioning season and a re-opening U.S. economy.
Though some companies have new social distancing and cleaning regimens, there is no standard set of rules for coal companies to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
The unions’ petition, filed with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, argues the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 mandates the agency impose temporary emergency rules whenever it finds that miners “are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful.”
The agency has resisted issuing any emergency rules, instead leaving in place voluntary measures.
“The Department is committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic, and MSHA has been working around the clock to that end,” a Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement. “The Department is confident it will prevail in this counterproductive lawsuit.”
An April 24 letter to the UMWA from Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration David Zatezalo stated “the risks miners face from exposure to COVID-19 are quite similar to the risks encountered by other Americans” and that the steps mining companies were taking were the “same precautions the general public must take.”
But the miners’ union has contended that conditions inside coal mines, where social distancing can be virtually impossible, are unlike those in other workplaces. Those conditions can include crowded changing rooms, shower facilities, shuttle cars, and elevators.
“Most Americans do not work in cramped underground quarters. Most are not exposed to high levels of silica and diesel emissions,” wrote USW’s director of health, safety and environment Michael J. Wright in a letter included in the filing. “Most Americans can choose to follow CDC guidelines on sanitation, social distancing, and the quarantine of symptomatic individuals. Miners have no such freedom; those choices are made by the mine operator.”
The union also says the risk of COVID-19 is much higher for the 1 in 10 coal miners already suffering from black lung disease.
Urgency for New Rules
UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said about a dozen of his union’s miners have gotten coronavirus. All have survived. In March, two miners at Consol Energy’s non-union Bailey mine in Greene County, Pa. tested positive for the virus, and the company shut down production there for two weeks.
Smith said the action is urgent because coal production is starting to come back up, after a steep dropoff during the economic shutdown caused by the outbreak, and as electricity demand rises to meet the summer air-conditioning season.
On top of that, the virus is spreading outside of the urban areas where it was first concentrated, into rural areas, where most mining takes place.
“And as it does that, the likelihood of miners contracting this disease or people in their families and then spreading it is going to go up,” Smith said.
The unions want every mine to make respirators that can keep viruses out available for any miner who wants one, and to reduce congestion on underground railcars and elevators that transport workers. They are also calling for cleaning standards for areas where miners dress, shower and congregate after each shift.
“In a mine atmosphere, it’s just very, very hard to keep anything clean, frankly, without getting coal dust on it or some other sort of dirt on it. So (cleaning) before and after each shift is critical,” Smith said.
Rachel Gleason of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance said her organization issued a set of best practices to mines on social distancing and cleaning at the beginning of the pandemic.
“From what I know our operators have taken that very seriously and we’ve had minimal exposure in our mines. Our companies have made efforts that go beyond those in the CDC guidelines,” Gleason said.
Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said in an email that the mining industry regularly “continues to follow government guidelines” including recommendations on following social distancing, cleaning and limits on gatherings.
Coal miners in Pennsylvania have been working pretty much during the entire coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Tom Wolf allowed the mines to stay open after initially ordering them closed due to coronavirus concerns.
The UMWA represents about 25 percent of the country’s 50,000 coal miners, including 450 at Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Pa. The United Steelworkers represent around 13,000 metal and non-metal miners in 31 states.
The unions are asking the court for an expedited hearing schedule, and if it wins its case, to have the agency issue the emergency standards within 30 days of any ruling.
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.