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COVID-19 pandemic: Miners union calls for emergency MSHA standard

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Triangle, VA — Citing concerns over the adjacent nature of mining work and the growing prevalence of respiratory illness in the industry, the United Mine Workers of America is calling on the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency standard to help safeguard mine workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 24 letter sent via email to MSHA administrator David Zatezalo, UMWA President Cecil Roberts contends miners are “one of the most vulnerable populations” to the potentially deadly respiratory disease. Many workers, he writes, suffer from underlying health conditions such as heart disease, compromised immune systems and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung disease. According to NIOSH, rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Roberts writes that the effects of these conditions “will greatly exacerbate” the symptoms of COVID-19, which include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. The uneasiness grows for miners who reside in rural areas with limited access to health care.

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

Roberts calls on MSHA to exercise its authority and require mine operators to:

  • Provide access to N95 respirators
  • Implement policies and procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts and when changing operators
  • Offer extra personal protective equipment for pulling cables, touching shared equipment and handling shared materials
  • Provide disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and gathering places
 

UMWA outlines several precautionary measures various mine operators already have taken:

  • Offering additional disinfection in toilet, sink, shower and boot wash areas, as well as near bulletin boards and lunch spaces, between shifts
  • Disinfecting all cap lamps, detectors, radios and any other equipment used by miners, after shifts and before other miners are able to use them
  • Providing miners with disinfecting wipes and spray
  • Disinfecting all equipment before use
  • Providing additional nitrile medical gloves for miners to wear in addition to their required work gloves
  • Limiting the number of miners traveling on elevators and mantrips
  • Suspending the use of hand scanners

However, the letter argues that these practices alone won’t keep miners safe.

“UMWA stands ready to work with MSHA, the mining industry and our members to find ways to protect miners in these unprecedented times,” Roberts writes. “Miners are a resilient people and have overcome many challenges throughout time. This will be yet another situation where we will overcome, protecting our miners, their families, their communities, and allow them to continue to provide these valuable resources when our nation needs them most.”

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