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The United Mine Workers of America is asking federal regulators to set uniform, enforceable guidelines to help protect coal miners from contracting COVID-19.
In a letter dated Tuesday, March 24, UMWA President Cecil Roberts wrote to the Mine Safety and Health Administration requesting the agency issue a “safeguard” or “emergency standard” that would require coal mine operators to take actions to protect miners from the coronavirus.
Union officials are requesting operators obtain N-95 respirators, set procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts, provide extra personal protective equipment and create disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and other communal gathering places.
“While these are certainly difficult times for all workers, it is especially challenging for workers who are unable to work from home and have valid concerns about their health and safety and that of their loved ones,” Roberts said in the letter. “Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site. They get dressed, travel down the elevator together, ride in the same man trip, work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment, and use the same shower facilities.”
UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said while some mines are voluntarily taking precautions to protect workers, the efforts are not uniform across the industry. He said many coal miners suffer from impaired lung function due to exposure to coal and silica dust and may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In addition, he said many mines and miners are located in rural communities, which have less access to medical care and have faced high levels of hospital closures over the past decade.
“There’s no consistency out there,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Even among the same companies [and] mines operated by the same companies. There’s certainly no consistency with mines where we do not represent the workers.”
If MSHA issues an “emergency standard” requiring mine operators to implement coronavirus precautionary measures, mine inspectors could issue citations if operators are found out of compliance.
A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.