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Coalminers’ work is ‘essential’ during the coronavirus crisis, but is their safety?

April 13, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

America’s 51,000 coal miners are exceptional conduits for the COVID-19 virus. 

Each day, they report for work at what’s commonly referred to as a “bathhouse” where they change clothing in close proximity before being ushered into tight elevators to descend 800 feet underground. Once in the mine, they sit knee-to-knee in a vehicle called a mantrip which takes them to their work site. During working hours, the air flows one way only: If one person sneezes, everyone downwind can feel it. A lack of machinery means that people have to work in groups to carry and fix things; manhandling equipment is a way of life. Then it’s back to the mantrip, into the elevator, and to top it all off: a communal shower.  

One in ten coal miners suffers from black lung disease, though some estimate that number is closer to 20%, making them particularly susceptible to the life-threatening complications associated with the virus. 

In mid-March, as COVID-19 began its rapid spread across the United States, President Donald Trump issued guidance that highlighted the importance of a critical infrastructure workforce, a group of professionals deemed essential to the heartbeat of the nation. The president recommended that no matter how grim things got, certain groups trudge on, often putting their own health and safety at risk for the betterment of the country: physicians and hospital personnel, water authorities, food manufacturers, and coal miners. 

“Coal is so essential it is unbelievable. We have to have good electricity flowing into our homes,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican and coal-mining billionaire, said just one day after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered the temporary closure of coal mines in his state, a move Justice said was “political.”

The next day, Wolf’s administration rethought their stance and moved coal miners to the “essential” designation. 

But, coal provides less than one-quarter of U.S. electricity, and that percentage is dropping rapidly: Consumption fell about 18% last year to its lowest level since 1975. The nation is currently sitting on large stockpiles of coal due to an unseasonably warm winter and less use of reserve coal. As oil and gas prices drop, it has become the most expensive fossil fuel available. 

“Look, I believe that coal is essential because of where I’m from. It’s essential for the power that we enjoy everyday and a good standard of living,” says Mike Caputo, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “But I think the most precious resource to ever come out of the mines was the coal miners, not the coal. So I’m concerned, I’m very concerned.”

Caputo, who worked in an underground mine for 22 years before going to work for the The United Mine Workers of America, represents a northern district in the middle of coal country.

“We are a very at-risk and vulnerable population here in West Virginia because of our predominant industry. It should concern everyone,” he says. “I’m not advocating that everything be shut down. I’m advocating that there should be protections in place mandated by the federal government.”

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), an agency of the United States Department of Labor tasked with protecting the lives of miners, is “asleep at the wheel here,” says Caputo. 

Coal mining is an inherently dangerous activity to begin with—small mistakes often have fatal consequences. Balancing a job with no margin for error, along with the new threat of a deadly illness, is a risky dance, and any type of federal guidance or regulation would be welcomed, says Caputo.

“MSHA has not responded to this other than not really saying much at all,” says Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

While the UMWA has been able to enforce staggered start times and other safety protocols at the mines they represent, he worries that non-unionized mines are not responding appropriately to the threat of COVID-19.

“We’ve asked them for specific guidance that can be applied nationwide to all mines and they haven’t done a thing. If MSHA doesn’t issue specific guidelines, there’s nothing to protect them,” says Smith.

In a letter sent late in March, union president Cecil Roberts urged MSHA administrator David Zatezalo to enforce a number of precautions intended to keep miners safe including providing N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment, disinfecting equipment between shifts, and limiting the number of miners traveling on elevators and mantrips. The letter was not acknowledged, says Smith.

Caputo says that it is well within the agency’s rights to create temporary standards that are enforceable. “The first thing that should have happened is safeguards should have been put in place by MSHA and every coal company across this country should have been told what needed to be done to keep them in business,” says Caputo. “And those should have been enforced, not just recommended.” 

In an email to Fortune, U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Laura McGinnis said that MSHA has issued a set of voluntary guidelines and will continue to perform essential functions like mandatory inspections and accident reviews. They will also help advise on COVID-19 prevention actions, on a voluntary basis. 

Under the Trump administration, the regulatory power of MSHA has been greatly reduced. The agency went without a permanent director for nearly a year before the president nominated Zatezalo, a retired coal mining executive who ran Rhino Eastern Eagle mine in West Virginia. Rhino mines have been issued more than $2.1 million in fines for 162 workplace safety or health violations since 2000. While in charge, his mine was designated as a Potential Pattern of Violation mine by MSHA, which identifies “mine operators who have demonstrated a recurring pattern of Significant and Substantial violations of mandatory health and safety standards at their mines.”

“It is so critical, absolutely critical, that the MSHA administrator is committed to standing up for our miners,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) told reporters ahead of Zatezalo’s confirmation. “But instead of nominating an advocate for workers’ health and safety, President Trump nominated one of the industry’s worst offenders.”

Zatezalo expressed remorse to the Senate, “I was not proud of the fact that we got designated as a PPOV mine. I did not try to lawyer up and stop anything from happening. I felt that if you haven’t done your job, then we should be big kids and deal with it as such,” he said. “Incidentally, I replaced that management because I wasn’t too happy with their performance.”

Under Zatezalo’s watch, MSHA has leaned heavily on “compliance assistance” which was a program popularized during the George W. Bush administration. Compliance assistants visit and inspect mines but are not allowed to issue any enforceable fines or citations and instead make suggestions. In the past, mine representatives were allowed to accompany compliance assistants, but that is no longer the case.

MSHA still completes official inspections of all underground mines four times a year and above surface mines twice a year. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the agency’s enforcement budget by about $2 million in fiscal year 2021

Smith, meanwhile, hopes that Congress thinks of coal miners as they prepare their fourth round of COVID-19-related stimulus spending. 

“There needs to be some sort of recognition that folks are putting their lives on the line here,” he says. “If the government is going to call you essential, then it seems like there outta be something that compensates for that.”

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