Labor unions sue Trump admin for COVID-19 protections

Source: E&E News

June 16, 2020


Two prominent labor unions sued the Trump administration today to force mine safety officials to take steps to protect workers from contracting COVID-19.

The disease caused by the new coronavirus poses “grave danger” to miners who work in close proximity, the petition says.

It was filed by the United Mine Workers of America and the United Steelworkers. Together, the unions represent thousands of coal and metals miners.

In March, UMWA wrote a letter to the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration asking it to issue an emergency safety standard to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at mines (E&E News PM, March 26).

MSHA chief David Zatezalo declined to do so. The agency today did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

Zatezalo wrote in an April response to UMWA, “The risks miners face from exposure to COVID-19 are quite similar to the risks encountered by other Americans. The steps mine operators and miners should take to protect themselves are the same precautions the general public must take.”

Now the unions are trying to force action. They asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to make MSHA issue an emergency temporary standard under the Mine Act.

“You would think that those who are charged with keeping miners safe would want to actually do so,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a statement.

Nearly 20 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress have also asked MSHA to issue an emergency standard. They said generic precautions are not specific enough to protect miners who cluster underground and in locker rooms and mine transports (E&E Daily, May 12).

At least a tenth of underground coal miners suffer from black lung disease, the complaint says. The respiratory disease developed by long-term exposure to coal dust makes miners particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 (Greenwire, April 8).

Issuing a universal standard for all mine operators could help prevent an outbreak like the one that has spread in the meat processing industry, according to the complaint.

At least 4,913 workers in that industry have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 20 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is unknown how widespread the coronavirus is at U.S. mines. MSHA had learned of “several” miners who had contracted the disease, Zatezalo said in April, but the agency could not give exact figures.

The coronavirus has spread quickly at mines in Poland, a top European coal producer. It closed 12 mines temporarily last week after about 20% of the nation’s positive cases were among miners, Reuters reported.

Work conditions in mines are unique, Roberts said, because air circulates throughout, carrying airborne diseases along with it.

“A 6-foot social distance is meaningless in an underground environment,” he said.

Written by: James Marshall