On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released a worker safety guidance to help mine operators and mine workers implement a coronavirus protection program and better identify risks that could lead to exposure. The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) “Protecting Miners: MSHA Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19” provides recommendations and outlines existing safety and health standards.
“The pandemic has cost too many Americans their lives or their well-being. Together, employers and workers have vital roles in making their workplaces as safe as possible to counter this terrible disease,” said Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor M. Patricia Smith. “Mine operations face unique challenges, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s updated guidance includes recommendations to help mining communities fight the virus, and eventually end its devastating health and economic consequences.”
MSHA said implementing a coronavirus protection program is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. MSHA drew upon guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control as well as from programs already in place at mine operations around the country. MSHA recommends conducting a hazard assessment; identifying control measures to limit the spread of the virus; adopt policies for miners who are absent that does not punish them as a way to encourage potentially infected miners to remain home; ensure communication of coronavirus policies and procedures to English and non-English speaking workers; and implement protections from retaliation for miners who raise coronavirus-related concerns.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Jeannette Galanis said operations should identify a mine coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues. “Communication is key to this whole thing,” Galanis said.
In addition, Galanis said it is important to educate and encourage miners to do health checks on their own. Although, she pointed out, some companies have also implemented their own health checks at the mine site, which is a good addition to self checks. “This is a very aggressive position to take and we appreciate that,” she said.
The guidance details key measures for limiting the coronavirus’s spread, including ensuring infected or potentially infected miners are not in the workplace, implementing and following physical distancing protocols and using surgical masks or cloth face coverings. It also provides guidance on use of personal protective equipment, improving ventilation, good hygiene and routine cleaning.
“Generally the key things to remember are the things we’ve been hearing for the last year,” Galanis said. This includes wearing a mask, practicing social distancing when able, washing hands, using hand sanitizer and staying home when sick.
The guidance is not a regulation, thus is not enforceable. However, MSHA encouraged operations to adopt these practices and continue to report work-related COVID cases. Contact tracing will still be left to local and state authorities.
For these recommendations to become enforceable, the DOL would have to implement an emergency temporary standard (ETS), which is issued when the danger to miners is so grave that immediate action is necessary. Back in June 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the Court) denied a petition for a writ of mandamus for the MSHA to issue an ETS to protect miners’ safety and health from COVID-19.
According to Galanis, the agency meets regularly about the possibility of issuing an ETS with her counterpart at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies. “I suspect a conclusion in the next couple of weeks,” she added. However, she said, there is no time frame.