The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has not done enough to protect coal miners during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from an oversight agency released Tuesday.
Through interviews with MSHA officials and union representatives, as well as reviews of state and national policies, the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that MSHA could do more to track coronavirus cases among coal miners, address a growing backlog of inspections, and mandate safety precautions underground.
Following the March determination that coal mines would be considered “critical infrastructure” and exempt from coronavirus-related shutdowns, MSHA issued voluntary guidelines to protect miners during the pandemic, including measures such as frequent hand-washing, wearing masks and maintaining social distance when possible. But the agency has faced significant pressure to make those guidelines mandatory.
“We’ve been trying to get the Mine Safety and Health Administration to establish regulations, emergency temporary standards, to set up a regulation that everybody has to follow, that is enforceable, instead of us going from mine to mine to mine and trying to work something out,” said United Mine Workers of America spokesperson Phil Smith. “Because at the mines where there is no union, there is no protection. It’s that simple.”
The National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics wrote to MSHA requesting an emergency temporary standard, and a bipartisan group of senators in May filed the COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act to require the issuance of such a measure.
MSHA has not yet committed to issuing an emergency temporary standard, the inspector general said.
The inspector general’s report also found that because of the coronavirus, MSHA suspended five categories of enforcement actions and seriously reduced 13 more, including ventilation investigations, non-fatal accident investigations and compliance assistance visits. Regular safety and health inspections, plus 14 other enforcement categories, have continued to operate at full capacity.
The report said those suspensions and reductions were a tradeoff: They limited contact between miners and mine safety inspectors and protected MSHA’s workforce from potential exposure to COVID-19, but they resulted in a backlog and increased the safety risk for miners.
Adding to the backlog was the number of MSHA inspectors who self-identified as being at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. About 100 of MSHA’s 750 inspectors, or 13 percent, have removed themselves from regular inspection duties out of concern for their own health.
In a response to the inspector general’s report included in its appendices, MSHA head David Zatezelo said, “MSHA agrees with OIG recommendations to develop a plan to manage the potential backlog of suspended or reduced activities, once full operations resume, and to monitor COVID-19 outbreaks at mines and to use that information to reevaluate our decision not to issue an emergency temporary standard.”
Some potential coronavirus prevention measures for coal mines include PPE, sanitization and staggered shifts. But these measures are an added expense for mine operators already struggling to remain profitable as the industry contracts.