Manchin, Capito, team with others to reintroduce miners’ COVID protection bill

Source: The Dominion Post

February 1, 2021

MORGANTOWN – West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito have again teamed with other senators to reintroduce the COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act.

The bill would direct the U.S. Secretary of Labor to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires mine operators to develop and implement a comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plan to protect miners from COVID-19 exposure at the mines; provide personal protective equipment to miners; incorporate guidelines from the CDC, NIOSH and relevant scientific research; and in coordination with CDC and NIOSH, track, analyze and investigate mine-related COVID-19 infections data in order make recommendations and guidance to protect miners from the virus.

The senators previously introduced this bill last May but it went nowhere.

Manchin said, “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.”

Capito said, “For centuries, our miners have worked tirelessly to power America and keep the lights on. It is vital that we take the necessary steps to provide them safety and job security as we continue to battle COVID-19.”

The bill again has the backing of the United Mine Workers of America, who failed in June in a joint effort with the United Steelworkers to obtain a federal court order to require the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an ETS.

More than 500 UMWA miners have contracted the virus in the past 11 months, UMWA said. Many have been hospitalized, some have died. The extent of infection in nonunion mines is not known at this point, because MSHA is not keeping track. The UMWA represents about 30% of all active hourly coal miners in the United States.

UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said of the new bill, “An Emergency Temporary Standard at MSHA is long overdue, and should have been issued at the beginning of this pandemic. 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. But that is where we find ourselves today.”

Roberts said President Biden has issued an executive order on the issue but expressed skepticism about how much it will achieve. “I welcome President Biden’s executive order directing MSHA to determine if an ETS should be issued, but that does not mean that the agency will do it. I fear that left to its own devices, MSHA will not take this needed action. This legislation will ensure that MSHA will issue such an order, enforce it and then make it permanent.”

Last June, Roberts and UMWA spokeman Phil Smith explained the need for a national ETS.

Air is circulated throughout a mine, Roberts said, meaning an airborne disease like COVID-19 can spread among workers who are far removed from one another.

Smith said some companies exercise due caution but others don’t.

“There is no consistency from company to company or mine to mine. Some of the more responsible operators, and all of those where the UMWA represents the workers, are issuing masks, working to schedule shifts in such a way to reduce the number of miners who are in the changing areas of the mine portals at the same time, and taking other steps to encourage social distancing in the elevators and mantrips underground.

“But many others are not,” he said then. “All MSHA has done is issue voluntary guidelines for mines to follow, but until there is something that requires all mine operators to do the same things at every mine far too many operators will continue to ignore the guidelines. There needs to be something with teeth that is enforceable.”

Joining with Manchin and Capito to sponsor the bill are Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

In the House, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., introduced the twin version.

Written by: David Beard