The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and United Steelworkers are now demanding emergency guidelines related to COVID-19 for the country's mines whether it's for coal, trona, gold or silver. They say voluntary guidance is not a substitute for mandatory and legally enforceable COVID-19 protocols.
The two unions, which collectively represent thousands of workers nationwide, had previously requested temporary guidelines from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in both March and May.
After the first request, MSHA responded it would not institute those guidelines given the risks miners face from exposure are similar to those encountered by other Americans.
Phil Smith, spokesman for UMWA, said that's not an answer.
"Pointing to CDC guidelines and saying the coal mines are no different from any other workplaces… it's just ludicrous. Anyone who's been in a coal mine, whether it's an underground mine or surface, mine knows that they are not like any other place anybody else works."
The agency did not respond to the groups' May request.
UMWA and United Steelworkers have now turned to a federal appeals court in hopes of compelling the agency to institute emergency, temporary guidelines.
Smith said it's not fair to leave a public health issue up to each company's discretion.
"There's no consistency from mine to mine, from operator to operator, from coal mine owner to coal mine owner," he explained. "Even within the same company sometimes. There needs to be consistent, enforceable standards that miners can know that when they go to work, it's going to be something that everybody's doing."
Andy Martinez said he's seen that inconsistency on the ground as a miner at Genesis Alkali in Green River, Wyoming. He's also the president of the United Steelworkers Local Union No. 13214.
In a statement included in the joint petition, Martinez said some good changes have been made. For example, the Genesis mine shut down the bus service and gave workers a driving stipend. But he says facilities are still crowded including changing areas, lobbies, and break rooms.
"Again, certain protocols have been instituted at the Genesis mine to stagger production and shifts in an attempt to lessen the number of miners in these areas, but such strategies do not completely allow us to distance ourselves from other miners and are difficult to enforce absent clear, enforceable standards," he said.
Genesis Alkali did not have anyone available for comment prior to deadline.
Martinez said he's also familiar with nearby trona mines that still have crowded buses running.
Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers, said a temporary standard for infectious disease would go a long way. He said it would hold companies accountable if workers were to contract COVID-19 or another airborne infectious disease.
"Miners are really at the mercy of mine operators. Some mine operators are doing the right thing, but many are not. And, unfortunately, we think there's a potential for our mines to become new centers of infection unless all mine operators are compelled to follow CDC guidelines," Wright said.
UMWA and United Steelworkers represent workers at mines and other employers throughout the West. UMWA represents the Kemmerer Mine in Wyoming, along with the Decker mine just north of the border in Montana.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor responded that it's committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic.
"MSHA has been working around the clock to that end. The Department is confident it will prevail in this counterproductive lawsuit."
The unions are petitioning the court to compel MSHA to issue that emergency temporary standard for infectious diseases within 30 days.
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This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.