Coal mining is essential, but miners should not face risk of COVID-19

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An open letter to the West Virginia governor, legislators, Bureau of Mines and the Federal Mine Health and Safety Administration.

I applaud the governor for his stay-at-home order and for recognizing that coal mining is an essential industry. Coal is certainly an essential industry in the future of our economy, but not in the short term.

We endured a 111-day strike in 1981 and a 10-month strike in 1993 with no disruption of electricity or production of steel. It is incorrect to say we cannot comply with a short-term stay-at-home order. I am not advocating for or against mine closures because that is above my current pay grade.

The officials named above who are responsible for the health and safety of our coal miners and the communities they live in have shown total disregard for the health of our coal miners and the effect it could have on our communities.

Why do I say this? Because due to the unique environment that coal miners work in, it is impossible to prevent a massive COVID-19 outbreak in our coal mines. Let me explain why.

I worked 19 years in an underground mine and served as the UMWA’s international secretary treasurer with oversight of mine health and safety. My employment experience gives me first-hand knowledge of the conditions in this environment.

Miners start their day with as many as 200 other coal miners. Together they change into their already soiled work clothes (which are washed once a week) standing side by side in the bathhouse. Next, as many as 40 miners will crowd into an elevator to go underground. From there they go on a man trip (closed cars that travel on tracks) with eight to 15 other miners sitting in direct contact with each other. A cough or sneeze from any one of these miners in the elevator or on the mantrip could infect all of them with the COVID-19 virus.

When they arrive at working sections, they work in very tight areas. Since the air they breathe is forced in from the outside by fans, the air always flows in the same direction. Why is that important for you to know? That means if a loading machine operator coughs or sneezes and has the COVID-19 virus, it can contaminate the miner operator and two roof bolters who are downwind. This condition applies to large areas of our underground mines.

At the end of the shift they walk to the mantrip and ride side by side for as much as 40 minutes to the elevator. Miners are also shoulder to shoulder in the elevator exit to the surface. They then shower side by side, put on their street clothes, and go home.

Since we have the largest cluster of underground mines in the Northern and North Central WV area, it not only endangers the miners and their families, but the citizens of the whole region.

Based on information I have seen, the COVID-19 virus has an infection rate of 3.4. Anyone who becomes infected with the virus can possibly infect three more people. They will carry the disease home putting their families at risk and their families will infect others. This situation has the potential of making this part of the state a COVID-19 epicenter in West Virginia.

There is no place in the country where workers are required to work in such a dangerous environment. What can we do?

We could close the mines. That is not my call or the UMWA’s call. It is the decision of politicians, state and federal agencies, and the health experts. We need to hear from them immediately.

We should not force anyone to go underground during this pandemic. If a miner misses two consecutive days without a doctor’s slip confirming that he is ill, he or she will be fired. That forces miners who have an underlying condition, such as heart or lung problems, to go to work. These workers are at a higher risk of survival if they contract the virus. Also, many miners have family members with health conditions who have a greater morbidity risk for COVID-19.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can sanitize a coal mine and make it safe. There are no bathrooms with sinks or commodes in an underground coal mine. Miners exit the mine covered with black dust and grease.

What is most frustrating to me is how the governor can say that miners are forced to work without consulting the CDC, NIOSH, or any other organization that is familiar with pandemic diseases. It appears that his decision has been profit-based since he is heavily invested in coal mines. Given the aforementioned environment that these coal miners work in, it is hard for anyone to believe it was done for the safety of the miners or the residents of West Virginia or the country. We are now releasing prisoners to protect them from the virus and yet forcing miners to work in this life-threatening environment. Is this how we protect workers in the United States?

It is alarming that the Federal Mine Health and Safety Administration, NIOSH and the West Virginia Bureau of Mines have been silent. They have not issued any guidelines or regulations on dealing with COVID-19, leaving coal operators free to do whatever they want including prohibiting the union from taking action.

Please! We need a solution and we need it now or face the possibility of a massive tragedy.

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