Bill Aims to Strengthen COVID-19 Protection for Mine Workers in Lieu of MSHA Action
By Mike Tony
February 10, 2021 - A bill introduced by West Virginia’s two U.S. senators and six congressional colleagues would add long-sought COVID-19 protections for miners.
Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor and its mine safety agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA), have declined to issue an emergency temporary standard related to the novel coronavirus.
The COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act would direct the Labor Department to develop and implement a comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plan, provide personal protective equipment to miners and track and investigate mine-related infections data.
A miner walks next to mantrip shuttle tracks at a mine in West Virginia.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the main sponsor of a bill with the same purpose in the previous Congress in May, but the measure languished in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The United Mine Workers of America backs the bill.
“You would think that the government agencies that are charged with protecting workers on the job would not have to be forced to do it,” UMW President Cecil E. Roberts said in a news release. “But that is where we find ourselves today.”
Roberts has been lobbying MSHA for an emergency standard, addressing a letter in March to David Zatezalo, the agency’s assistant secretary, requesting greater protection and noting the many COVID-19 risks that come with mining.
“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” Roberts wrote. “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.”
President Joe Biden issued an executive order Jan. 21, his first full day in office, directing his secretary of labor to issue any emergency temporary standards necessary to protect miners.
“I welcome President Biden’s Executive Order directing MSHA to determine if (emergency temporary standards) should be issued, but that does not mean that the agency will do it,” Roberts said in his release. “I fear that, left to its own devices, MSHA will not take this needed action.”
More than 500 miners have contracted the virus in the past 11 months, according to the union, which said it represents about 30% of all active hourly coal miners in the United States.
Slightly fewer than 14,000 coal mining employees worked in West Virginia in 2019, according a federal report released in October.
MSHA said it issued 195 citations for sanitary conditions that could have contributed to coronavirus spread from March 1 to Dec. 31. The agency did not provide a state-by-state breakdown.
The Labor Department’s Office of the Inspector General in July released a report recommending that MSHA monitor COVID-19 outbreaks at mines and reevaluate its decision not to issue an emergency temporary standard.
Zatezalo stated his agreement with the recommendations in a written response but indicated the agency didn’t have an enforcement backlog. He said “no grave danger” existed at mines to warrant such a standard.
MSHA officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“Our miners risk their lives every day to power our nation and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that risk is even greater for our brave miners,” Manchin said in a news release Monday. “The bipartisan, bicameral COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act will instruct (the Labor Department) to create safeguards and provide (equipment) to ensure our miners are protected from exposure to COVID-19 in the mines.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was the only Republican listed among those introducing the bill in Congress.
“For centuries, our miners have worked tirelessly to power America and keep the lights on,” said Capito, R-W.Va. “It is vital that we take the necessary steps to provide them safety and job security as we continue to battle COVID-19.”
Joining Manchin and Capito in introducing the bill were Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.