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Mine-Safety Agency’s Virus Response Probed by Labor Watchdog

April 30, 2020, 3:08 PM

The Labor Department’s internal watchdog is probing how mine-safety inspections are being conducted amid the Covid-19 pandemic—a review that is part of a larger oversight effort but follows complaints from inspectors that their safety gear is inadequate and that they could spread the virus when visiting mines.

The DOL’s Office of Inspector General informed Mine Safety and Health Administration leadership Wednesday that it will be reviewing “the pandemic’s impact on inspections and investigations and the guidance to mine operators for preventing employee exposures to COVID-19.” MSHA has continued to conduct on-site inspections of underground and surface mines throughout the pandemic.

Over the past six weeks, MSHA inspectors and their union representatives have complained to agency leaders that they are putting themselves and the miners they’re supposed to protect at risk of infection, Bloomberg Law reported April 17. Inspectors have asked for new protective equipment, fewer required inspections, and more opportunities to telework or take paid leave, according to interviews with 10 MSHA employees and three officials for the union that represents them.

The audit was not launched as a result of the complaints, an inspector general spokesman told Bloomberg Law via email. It’s part of the office’s pandemic-response oversight, but its scope may cover some of the safety concerns MSHA inspectors have raised, the spokesman said.

“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 earlier this month. “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 agency’s Covid-19 response plan includes suspending certain educational visits to mines and advising miners to maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves. A DOL spokeswoman said earlier this month that MSHA also has taken multiple steps to protect inspectors, such as providing respirator masks and tapping into a Federal Emergency Management Agency supply to send packages of gloves to regional offices.

The probe is the latest in a series of audits the DOL’s IG has launched in recent weeks to examine how various subagencies are responding to the virus. That includes separate audits of the Wage and Hour Division, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Employment and Training Administration’s spending on unemployment benefits.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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