As COVID-19 Spreads, Coal Mines Remain Open Despite Close Quarters
March 27, 2020 - Coal mining is continuing in Virginia and other states during the COVID-19 outbreak, even as many miners are unable to follow social-distancing practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers of America, says the union is concerned the virus could spread quickly in a coal mine. He says it's the nature of the work that miners have to share tight quarters in changing rooms and elevators that take them underground.
"Those elevators are designed to hold 20 to 30 people," says Smith. "Obviously, that's a problem. So, what many companies are doing is limiting a 20-personnel elevator to just four or five people, which allows them to get enough room, but not everyone's doing that yet."
Coal mines have been declared "essential" businesses by President Donald Trump. Yet, coal provides less than a quarter of America's energy.
Because COVID-19 impairs respiratory function, coal miners may be at elevated risk for the virus - due to lung damage from breathing in coal dust and diesel fumes.
A CDC report finds the U.S. has seen a rise in cases of black lung among coal miners. Smith says it's because many mines aren't following federal safety laws.
"They're putting their workers at risk underground," says Smith. "The federal government has not been as good as it should have been about enforcing the law. So in mines where the union does not represent the workers, we're seeing a lot of increases like this."
This week, the UMWA sent a letter to the Mine Safety and Health Administration calling for the agency to issue an emergency standard to increase protections for miners working through the COVID-19 pandemic.