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Infrastructure Workers Nervous Safety Guidelines Fall Short Amidst COVID-19

Diesel fuel cars at a trainyard in Morrill.
Alan Nash
Diesel fuel cars at a trainyard in Morrill.

A long-time coal miner in the Powder River Basin said he worries his employer is not taking the risks of COVID-19 seriously despite instituting safety guidelines. Joe Phillips, not his real name, does not feel safe at work. He requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

"After our safety meeting, the bosses told us we need to space out more... and then they put us on the school buses to head out to the pit all crammed in like sardines. I thought to myself, 'Well, this isn't right,'" Phillips said.

He said supervisors are providing the necessary information to stay safe like the need to practice social distancing, wipe down surfaces and stay home if sick.

"They also say they don't really have a plan out there if someone actually does come down with COVID-19. They just say we will burn that bridge when we get to it," he said.

Phillips said, if there are masks available, no one is wearing them in the mines or on the buses. He's worried about the lack of enforcement with their guidelines, like say, making sure everyone wipes down a machine after use. Phillips would rather just stay home until this all blows over.

"It's funny to me that they preach safety, safety, safety, but yet with this pandemic going around they are not really doing nothing for the employees," he said.

Like many other industries, coal mines have recommended safety guidelines to follow that were put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with more specific instruction from its regulatory agency; in this case, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). After that, it's up to each company to implement its own safety protocol based on those best practices; that's caused variation within PRB mines.

"If things aren't being done, right, I think it's incumbent on [workers] that recognize it to call it out and make the change."

While coal doesn't need an "essential" designation to stay open for now, it likely would be considered essential and stay open if Wyoming leadership chose to institute a shelter-in-place order. Energy is one of 16 industries deemed critical to the nation's infrastructure by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Several coal companies are staggering when shifts arrive to reduce congestion, checking the temperature of workers at the gate, and some are requiring gloves and masks, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. Peabody Energy announced it has stopped busing entirely and is expanding the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard workers. NTEC announced it initially added buses to allow for social distancing, but has since suspended the use of shuttle buses; the company is also sanitizing workspaces more frequently. Those are just a few of the announced changes within coal companies in the basin. Several companies are strenghtening safety protocols as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming grows.

On March 24, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the largest union for coal miners in North America, sent a letter to MSHA asking for industry-wide, temporary, mandatory "emergency standards" to ensure compliance with specified safety guidelines.

"The only thing that's going to work is something that is a mandatory guideline that is enforced by the inspectors," UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said. "Miners need enforceable standards that are consistent everywhere. Otherwise, operators will feel that they can do their own thing and some will put miners at risk."

Union officials requested mine operators obtain N-95 masks, set procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts and provide extra personal protective equipment. While some mines in the southwestern part of the state are unionized, the majority of miners are not. Smith said the principal of the letter still applies and that the need to protect miners is paramount.

The variation in safety guidelines within an industry is not unique to coal, nor is the fear that those guidelines are not being properly enforced.

If you walk into a grocery store, you may notice one has plexiglass in front of a cashier while another within Wyoming doesn't. In mid-March, several grocery employees in-state reported their company instructed them not to wear masks saying it would incite fear.

Companies with wind development in Wyoming are also adapting to CDC guidelines. That includes PacifiCorp which has altered its shift and work practices to maintain social distance guidelines, according to a spokesman. Oil and gas companies are following suit in making amendments to its pre-existing guidelines along with railroads.

Similar to UMWA, unions for Wyoming railroaders are asking for standardized safety guidelines to be implemented. The Transportation Division of SMART and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen submitted a petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for "emergency standards" to address safety conditions.

Stan Blake, Green River Representative, Union Pacific switchman and state legislative director for SMART Transportation Union, said he's seen and heard from others about the problem.

"We had no hand sanitizer. We just had soap and water and some bleach water so... they are starting to get stuff in. I hope it proceeds the way it is. We get some masks, we get some rubber gloves," he said.

Blake said the big concern for railroaders traveling across the state is cleanliness in the lodging facilities. He added there's also little enforcement to ensure guidelines, like wiping down surfaces, are being followed.

Blake said that's risky because locomotives come from Seattle, Washington, a COVID-19 hotspot, and travel through the country, including through Wyoming.

"I'm just concerned that when an employee gets sick and exposes other people... that could really, really harm the railroad and their employees... their critical, essential employees," he said. "If a few of us get sick, then we're supposed to be quarantined, it could shut down the railroads pretty severely."

Blake spent Monday making his own masks, saying they are not yet widely available at his train depot. He added the bleach/water mixes may also be a problem. He says the solution used widely by his company is rarely replaced. Scripps Research found a bleach/water solution is potent for disinfecting for only a day, though that depends on the concentration of bleach.

The railroaders' petition also calls for mandatory temperature checks, guidelines for disinfecting areas, and the availability of hand sanitizer in each crew room.

A Union Pacific representative said nothing is more important than the safety of the company's employees. She said the company is working to make changes including increased cleanings, access to hand sanitizer, equipping locomotives with shop towels, and closing facilities to non-essential guests.

Update 4/9 4:21 p.m. Governor Mark Gordon said in a press conference on April 8 that railroader safety issues came up in a legislative call this week.

"I'm happy to say both Burlington Northern [BNSF] and UP responded with increased diligence for their workplaces and workers," he said.

Christine Porter, associate professor and Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health at the University of Wyoming, said the risk of COVID-19's further spread is significant and that employers shouldn't be left to enforce guidelines meant to protect everyone inside and out of that workplace.

"I don't think it's fair even to ask [employers] to both figure out what they are supposed to do and need to do and how to do it and to implement it. I think that has to be mandated in consultation with the industry. But because it's life and death, and because so few employers are taking the measures necessary, it should not be left up to employers to take the measures," she said.

Porter said the current strategy of recommending safety guidance is necessary, but not sufficient. She said each industry staying open right now should adopt mandatory guidelines with input from relevant parties.

"If the President isn't going to do it, then the Governor should do it. If the Governor isn't going to do it, then the county should do it. If the county isn't going to do it, then the city should do it," she said. "Otherwise, we are killing people. More people are going to die of this virus than needed to if we don't help employers, and make employers, protect their employees."

"It's funny to me that they preach safety, safety, safety, but yet with this pandemic going around they are not really doing nothing for the employees."

MSHA responded to a request for comment saying it's actively working on many fronts to aid the American workforce and that it encourages all Americans to follow state and federal guidance on safe practices. OSHA did not respond to a request for comment.

Several in industry, and the Governor's office, say that it's important to give companies flexibility right now to implement their own safety guidelines.

"For those folks that have to keep going, there's excellent guidance out there for them that should help make sure that the workers stay safe," said Renny Mackay, Governor Mark Gordon's policy director. "Situations are different and that's what makes it so hard to try to come up with just a one-level approach that applies everywhere."

Mackay said discussions are happening hour-to-hour among state officials about how to best address protecting everyone from further spread of COVID-19.

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said each operator and sector is different and each is developing safety guidelines that best fit its circumstances using Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) guidelines.

"These are unprecedented times, and this flexibility is important. Producers are taking it very seriously, and are talking to each other and sharing ideas and best practices for workforce safety. While guidelines from the state and federal government are helpful, a one-size-fits-all government directive or mandate might not be the best approach," he said.

Deti said a number of operators across sectors have noted the difficulty of purchasing cleaning and disinfecting supplies.

Gillette Representative Eric Barlow has heard from Wyoming residents concerned about enforcement of safety guidelines. He said he reached out to one company and they told him they were struggling to adapt considering the lack of necessary supplies available. As for a solution, he says everyone needs to take some responsibility.

"I think it's maybe some top-down guidance, but then it's really the responsibility, and I think it's a joint responsibility, between the employers and the employees," said Barlow. "If things aren't being done right, I think it's incumbent on [workers] that recognize it to call it out and make the change."

Barlow said the first responsibility is of course to protect life and health, but that it's also in a businesses interest to stay open.

He sent a letter to the Governor's office recommending it consider drafting workplace guidelines for essential businesses so there's a baseline for everyone, but not making them mandatory.

John Hastert, president of the Wyoming chapter of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 national and international labor unions, agrees the solution to improved safety guidelines may be that dual approach. He said most of the responsibility falls on the individual to stay safe, but that more stringent guidance may be in order.

"We need the grocery stores [and] a certain amount of our businesses running right now and we've got to make sure the individuals doing that are protected," said Hastert. "So, I think it would be good for our state or our Department of Health to look at some measures that go across the board and better ensure the safety of those workers."

Update 4/9 4:21 p.m. The CDC released interim guidance to allow essential workers exposed to COVID-19 to return to work with certain protections including regular monitoring, social distancing and a requirement to disinfect work spaces.

The National Council for Occupational Safety (National COSH) and Health and Center for Progressive Reform called on the CDC to retract the guidance saying it will increase the risk of the pandemic's spread.

"This unsound guidance sends the message to our critical frontline workers that their government and employers view them as expendable," said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of National COSH.

The CDC wrote employers should implement the recommendations in the Interim Guidanceto help prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.

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