Wednesday marked 365 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
A year into the pandemic, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued coronavirus prevention guidance that creates no new legal obligations for mine operators despite calls for the agency to consider an emergency temporary standard requiring operators to comply.
The MSHA guidance released on Wednesday suggested mine operators conduct hazard assessments of mine sites, identify measures that limit COVID-19 transmission, ensure that miners who are infected or potentially infected are separated and sent home from the mine, and protect miners who raise COVID-19-related concerns from retaliation.
The MSHA noted that the guidance is not a standard or regulation.
Other MSHA COVID-19 suggestions included identifying a mine coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues on the operator’s behalf, allowing workers to work remotely when their job duties allow and isolating miners who show symptoms at work.
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts noted in a statement that the UMWA has been calling for federal action to help protect miners at work from contracting COVID-19 for a year and called the guidance “a significant step in the right direction.”
“But much more needs to be done,” said Roberts, who called on the MSHA to quickly issue an enforceable standard that applies to all mines and miners, whether they are union members or not.
In a quarterly conference call that MSHA officials held with stakeholders Wednesday, Mike Wright, health, safety and environment director for the United Steelworkers, urged the MSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard.
“The problem with voluntary guidelines is although many mine operators will take them as guidance … not everybody volunteers,” Wright said. “Their workers deserve the same level of protection as mine operators who do the right thing.”
President Joe Biden issued an executive order on the first full day of his presidency directing the Department of Labor to consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19 are needed.
“The pandemic has been going on for more than a year now,” Wright said to MSHA officials. “You’re still in the process of making a decision on whether to have an ETS [emergency temporary standard]. What do you still need to know?“
Jeannette Galanis, MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, cited MSHA concerns about how broad the scope of such a standard should be given mine environments vary in need for respirators and about contract tracing.
“[H]ow do you set up a standard when you can’t even prove where the virus came from?” Galanis said.
Galanis also reported that the agency conducted almost as many inspections in person in 2020 during the pandemic as in 2019 since it is required to conduct inspections in person and has been dealing with COVID-19 among its own workforce.
“We are a very small front-office agency,” said Galanis, who was appointed to her position by Biden effective Feb. 1. “ … We are making decisions as fast as we can.”
The United Steelworkers joined the UMWA to file suit against the MSHA in June to seek an emergency temporary standard.
In July, the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General released a report recommending that the MSHA monitor COVID-19 outbreaks at mines and reevaluate its decision not to issue an emergency temporary standard related to COVID-19 to help protect mine workers from exposure to the coronavirus, citing pressure from mining unions and members of Congress to introduce such a standard given some miners being at high risk due to age or preexisting conditions like black lung disease.
West Virginia’s senators were among those who reintroduced a bill last month that the UMWA supports for proposing regulatory standards for disease transmission control. The UMWA-backed COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act, pushed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., would direct the Department of Labor 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.