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Federal Mine Inspectors Worry About Virus Safety Underground

April 17, 2020, 7:37 PM

Federal mine inspectors are still on patrol from Appalachian coal country to the metal-rich West, despite concerns that they’re putting themselves and the miners they’re supposed to protect at risk of coronavirus infection.

Inspectors with the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration for weeks have been asking for new protective equipment, fewer required inspections, and more telework and paid leave opportunities, according to interviews with 10 MSHA employees and three officials for the union that represents them. In some districts, inspectors don’t have gloves or N95 masks and say supervisors are denying telework requests.

Inspectors “are not able to decontaminate when they go from mine to mine,” said Jeff Darby, secretary of the National Council of Field Labor Locals, which represents MSHA inspectors. “So, not only are we not protecting our own MSHA folks, they’re failing to protect the miners by continuing this exposure.”

That criticism is shared by miners themselves, who’ve complained to the agency about sharing close quarters with inspectors, seven MSHA workers said.

The agency has taken multiple steps to protect its 600 inspectors, in addition to providing standard-issue elastomeric respirator masks that predate Covid-19, a DOL spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law in emails. That includes tapping into a Federal Emergency Management Agency glove supply and paying a distillery to produce hand sanitizer.

The push and pull over mine inspector safety during the pandemic resembles situations unfolding at grocery stores, pharmacies, and other businesses that are open during shelter-in-place orders. It also highlights unique conditions for inspectors, often former miners with respiratory issues from decades underground, who are called on to protect another group of “essential” workers.

“When mines are operating, MSHA has an important role to keep those miners safe,” David Zatezalo, assistant secretary for mine safety and health, said in a statement. “Our inspectors are dedicated to the safety and health of America’s miners and MSHA’s leadership is doing everything in our power to keep our staff safe during this pandemic.”

‘The Mandate’

Miners continue to work in states that have deemed the industry critical during pandemic shutdown orders, aligning with Homeland Security Department guidance. MSHA is bound by the 1977 Mine Safety and Health Act, which requires the agency to inspect every underground mine four times a year and all surface mines twice a year.

Inspectors traverse cramped, underground mines—accessed via rail cars often packed with up to 20 people standing shoulder to shoulder—breathing the same air as dozens of miners along the way, they said. Those reviewing surface mines regularly travel across state lines and stay in hotels on the road.

“We do have the mandate, but this is not a normal situation,” said Kevin Burns, a manager at MSHA’s Virginia headquarters who has worked at the agency for more than 30 years. “There should be a weighing of what’s best for people, and going to a mine to do safety inspections and perhaps infecting people. I don’t know, is that worth it? It’s almost like the doctor’s pledge—we should do no harm, too.”

That’s not a sentiment shared by the miners’ union.

“If miners are being considered essential workers, which they are, and they are working, then they need the oversight and inspection that MSHA inspectors provide—it’s that simple,” United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said.

Getting Supplies

MSHA since March 17 has “suspended discretionary inspections and special safety initiatives that normally would gather sizeable groups of miners on site” the spokeswoman said, adding that the agency has “focused its essential functions on mandatory inspections, serious accident investigations, and investigations of hazard complaints.”

Some inspectors want to be sent out only to respond to cases of imminent danger or fatalities, with routine inspections delayed until the pandemic has subsided. Their union’s requests to bargain with the agency for more telework options, additional paid leave, and protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves, Tyvek suits, and disinfectant solution have been met with “silence,” according to union official Brad Allen.

The agency spokeswoman didn’t address the bargaining question in emails with Bloomberg Law.

“The MSHA inspectors have a point that they do tend to be older and they are at least on the edge of that most at-risk category, if not right in it,” said Michael McCawley, a public health professor at West Virginia University who specializes in occupational safety and has trained MSHA inspectors. “Just like any front-line hospital or medical field worker who is saving lives, the MSHA inspectors are also saving lives, so they need to be accorded that same level of respect and concern.”

The agency has authorized district managers to purchase any personal protective equipment “they can obtain locally,” the DOL spokeswoman said. It also has arranged for FEMA to send gloves to pandemic hot spots and is working to get additional supplies.

Union officials and inspectors said many supervisors haven’t been able to find local supplies because field offices are in remote areas. The shipments are a promising development, they said.

Inspectors still want N95 masks, which are lighter than government-issued elastomeric respirators and don’t require intensive cleaning after each use.

The DOL spokeswoman said the government-issued elastomeric respirators offer “superior” protection. She noted “N95 masks can be beneficial in certain applications” and the agency “shipped supplies of N95’s to all Enforcement districts that requested them.”

Allen, the union official, and some MSHA inspectors said they’re not aware of any N95 shipments, as of Friday.

MSHA also is encouraging inspectors “to maintain appropriate distance from miners, to the extent feasible,” the spokeswoman said.

But inspectors and their union say that’s often impossible.

“We still need everything we can in order to prevent our folks from catching this,” Allen said. “We don’t know where the next hot spot’s going to be.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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