COVID-19 pandemic: Bipartisan bill would direct MSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard

helmets.jpg

Photo: davidmariuz/iStockphoto

Washington — Bipartisan legislation recently introduced in the Senate would require the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard within seven days of enactment, followed by the issuance of a final rule.

The COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act (S. 3710) – introduced May 13 by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – would forbid mine operators from retaliating against mine workers who report infection control problems to employers or any public authority.

According to May 14 press release from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), one of the bill’s seven co-sponsors, the legislation also would require:

  • Mine operators to provide workers with personal protective equipment.
  • MSHA to issue a permanent comprehensive infectious disease standard within two years.
  • MSHA to track, analyze and investigate mine-related COVID-19 infection data – in coordination with OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to make recommendations and guidance to protect workers.

“Miners have put their health at risk for years to power our country,” Brown said in the release. “Now they’re facing more danger, as working conditions put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.”

MSHA says it has received a “high volume” of questions about COVID-19. In response, the agency published an information sheet with recommendations for miners and mine operators to help prevent the spread of the disease, along with a list of actions MSHA has taken during the ongoing pandemic.

Miners and mine operators are encouraged to stay home when sick, avoid close contact with others, wash hands frequently, and regularly clean and disinfect equipment and commonly touched surfaces.

The bill – co-sponsored by five other Senate Democrats and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) – was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on May 13.

MSHA cancels clarification letter on escapeway requirements for underground mines

mine-underground.jpg

Photo: ewg3D/iStockphoto

Washington — After weighing public and stakeholder input, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has rescinded a program policy letter intended to clarify requirements for providing emergency escapeways for underground metal and nonmetal miners, determining that the clarification “is not needed.”

According to a notice published in the May 27 Federal Register, MSHA made its decision after considering comments on the letter – initially published in the July 29 Federal Register – and feedback received during an Oct. 10 public stakeholder meeting.

The agency states that under 30 CFR 57.11050:

  • “Every mine shall have two or more separate, properly maintained escapeways to the surface from the lowest levels which are so positioned that damage to one shall not lessen the effectiveness of the others. A method of refuge shall be provided while a second opening to the surface is being developed. A second escapeway is recommended, but not required, during the exploration or development of an ore body.”
  • “A method of refuge shall be provided” for miners to safely take shelter in the event they are unable to access the areas “when using the normal exit method.”

The letter notes that the refuge site “should be located near the miners so that they promptly and reliably” can enter, and encourages mine operators to confer with MSHA district managers on mine-specific conditions and factors when determining escape and evacuation plans

Engulfment incident spurs MSHA safety alert on surge piles

MSHA-Safety-Alert-for-Surge-Piles.jpg

Photo: Photo: Mine Safety and Health Administration

Arlington, VA — Prompted by a recent incident in which a coal mine bulldozer operator working on a surge pile of coal was engulfed and trapped in the machine’s cab when the pile collapsed, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a safety alert.

The operator was working near a load-out feeder location at the time the surge pile tumbled. MSHA contends the operator was uninjured because the bulldozer was equipped with high-strength glass that prevented coal from infiltrating the cab, as well as two self-contained self-rescuers, which supplied sufficient, breathable air during a two-hour rescue effort.

According to a 2019 Department of Labor video, surge pile incidents have claimed the lives of 19 miners since 1980. “In an accident, a bulldozer can suddenly fall into a hidden cavity, where the coal has bridged over an underground feeder,” the video says.

MSHA offers numerous best practices for mine operators and contractors to safely work on or near surge piles, including:

  • Prevent foot traffic on surge piles and provide adequate warning signs.
  • Provide adequate surge pile-related training to all workers, including specialization on alarm response, equipment needs, and rescue and recovery plans involving engulfed equipment.
  • Stock cabs with safety equipment, including self-contained self-rescuers, flashlights, cooling pads and drinking water.
  • Stay stable. Do not operate equipment directly over feeders, stay away from unstable drawhole edges and ensure bulldozers employ the “double blade” pushing method.
  • Use remote-controlled dozers on surge piles.
  • Be aware of surge pile conditions.

Worker deaths prompt MSHA safety alert about welds on aerial lifts

Washington — In response to several fatalities resulting from damaged or defective welds on aerial lifts, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a safety alert.

Published March 23, the alert details an incident in which a weld splice on the repaired arm of a lift fractured because of poor weld quality, killing a mechanic on board. In another incident, a welder died when a lift arm “catastrophically fractured at a critical weld connecting the arm support to its lift cylinder.” In this case, cracks in the weld and the surrounding metal went undetected.

MSHA provides several best practices to help avoid similar tragedies:

  • Use only qualified welders to perform all welding.
  • Inspect all welds after installation and repairs, and perform periodic inspections on welds during an aerial lift’s service life.
  • Consult with manufacturers to determine service/fatigue life of mechanical systems or parts.
  • Educate users on proper lift operations, including how to avoid exceeding “design capacity.”
  • Perform routine examinations of metal components for signs of weakness, corrosion, fatigue cracks, bends, buckling or missing connectors, etc.
  • Use nondestructive test methods to detect cracks that might be indistinguishable to the human eye.
  • Remove cracked mechanical components from service immediately.

“Small cracks can quickly grow and lead to catastrophic fracture,” the alert warns.

COVID-19 pandemic: Miners union calls for emergency MSHA standard

female-miner.jpg
Photo: RyersonClark/iStockphoto

Triangle, VA — Citing concerns over the adjacent nature of mining work and the growing prevalence of respiratory illness in the industry, the United Mine Workers of America is calling on the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency standard to help safeguard mine workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 24 letter sent via email to MSHA administrator David Zatezalo, UMWA President Cecil Roberts contends miners are “one of the most vulnerable populations” to the potentially deadly respiratory disease. Many workers, he writes, suffer from underlying health conditions such as heart disease, compromised immune systems and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung disease. According to NIOSH, rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Roberts writes that the effects of these conditions “will greatly exacerbate” the symptoms of COVID-19, which include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. The uneasiness grows for miners who reside in rural areas with limited access to health care.

“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” the letter states. “They get dressed, travel down the elevator together, ride in the same mantrip, work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment and use the same shower facilities.”

Roberts calls on MSHA to exercise its authority and require mine operators to:

  • Provide access to N95 respirators
  • Implement policies and procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts and when changing operators
  • Offer extra personal protective equipment for pulling cables, touching shared equipment and handling shared materials
  • Provide disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and gathering places

­UMWA outlines several precautionary measures various mine operators already have taken:

  • Offering additional disinfection between shifts in toilet, sink, shower and boot wash areas, as well as near bulletin boards and lunch spaces
  • Disinfecting all cap lamps, detectors, radios and any other equipment used by miners, after shifts and before other miners are able to use them
  • Providing miners with disinfecting wipes and spray
  • Disinfecting all equipment before use
  • Providing additional nitrile medical gloves for miners to wear in addition to their required work gloves
  • Limiting the number of miners traveling on elevators and mantrips
  • Suspending the use of hand scanners

However, the letter argues that these practices alone won’t keep miners safe.

“UMWA stands ready to work with MSHA, the mining industry and our members to find ways to protect miners in these unprecedented times,” Roberts writes. “Miners are a resilient people and have overcome many challenges throughout time. This will be yet another situation where we will overcome, protecting our miners, their families, their communities, and allow them to continue to provide these valuable resources when our nation needs them most.”

MSHA says no Pattern of Violations notices needed in 2019

Arlington, VA — The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not identify any Pattern of Violations offenders among the nation’s 13,000-plus mines for the sixth consecutive screening period.

The most recent screening period began Feb. 1, 2019, and ended Jan. 31, MSHA states in a March 17 press release. The agency conducts screenings at least once annually.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 authorizes MSHA to issue POV notices to operators who “demonstrate a disregard for the health and safety of miners through a pattern of significant and substantial violations.” Further, a January 2013 final rule allows MSHA to consider extenuating circumstances before issuing a POV notice and prompts operators to fix problems if they are approaching the threshold of a POV.

pair of online tools allows the agency to assist with compliance. POV monitoring notifies mine operators that they are approaching POV status and should take action to correct issues. The S&S rate calculator allows mine operators to track “significant and substantial” violations. According to the release, the rate of such violations fell to 20% in 2019 from 32% in 2011.

“Safety and health is what we care about most,” agency administrator David Zatezalo said in the release. “It’s what miners’ families care about, and we can see it’s what mine operators care about. We’ll issue [POV] notices when we need to, but it’s a good feeling to look at the screenings and see no mines meeting the criteria.”

‘Faces of Black Lung II’: NIOSH releases follow-up video

black-lung-test.jpg

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Washington — Seated on a sofa and struggling to breathe – even with the assistance of oxygen – late Kentucky coal miner Peyton Mitchell, then 42, delivers a testimonial about his battle with black lung disease.

“It just really took a toll on me,” Mitchell says in a video released Jan. 21 by NIOSH. “All the activities I could do outside, I can’t do no more. I’m pretty well on oxygen 24/7 in the house. It’s just humid outside. You just can’t get out and do anything. I just can’t do anything no more.”

Mitchell died of black lung disease in September 2018 at the age of 43. The 20-minute video, Faces of Black Lung II – The Story Continues, was produced in his memory. The video is intended to raise awareness of the growing prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung – especially among younger miners. Rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years, according to NIOSH.

A follow-up to the agency’s 2008 video, Faces of Black Lung, the new video also features remarks from former coal miners Mackie Branham Jr., 39, and Ray Bartley, 47.

“Black lung disease kills, and it’s once again on the rise, striking miners at much younger ages than ever before,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says in the video. “It used to be that we’d see miners dying from black lung disease in their 60s, long before their time. But now, we see miners dying from black lung in their 40s. Even people that don’t have respiratory symptoms can have black lung. Catching it early can allow you to take steps to keep it from progressing to severe lung disease.”

NIOSH reminds mine workers that free, confidential health screenings are available through the agency’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. Miners are eligible to receive a chest X-ray, breathing test and symptom assessment once every five years at a clinic near their mine, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Cdr. Cara Halldin, who helps lead CWHSP, says in the video. Additional screenings are offered via a NIOSH mobile testing unit.

Branham and Bartley, who along with Mitchell followed a family tradition of working in the mines, offer advice about the importance of early screening and detection.

“Just remember: Take care of yourself,” Branham says. “Because right now, I’ve got two 9-year-olds that I can’t play basketball with. I’ve got a boy I moved into college. I had to stop packing his clothes into his dorm. You can’t do what you used to.”

Adds Bartley: “Do I have any regrets working in the mines? No. I didn’t think I would get sick. My advice if you’re starting up … working in a mine: Stay in good air. Always be safe, work safe.”

New Study Details Prevalence of Hearing Loss among Noise-Exposed Mining, and Oil and Gas Extraction Workers

Photo: sshepard/iStockphoto

As many as 1 in 3 workers affected in some Mining industries

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine external icon is the first to examine hearing loss prevalence and risk by industry within the Oil and Gas Extraction sector, and within most Mining sector industries. Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that in many industries within these sectors, at least 25% of the workers had hearing loss. In some industries, more than 30% had hearing loss. Read more»

Appeals court sides with unions: No mine examinations during shifts

Photo: davidmariuz/iStockphoto

Washington — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has vacated a 2018 amendment to a 2017 Mine Safety and Health Administration rule that allowed a competent person to inspect the workplace as miners began work rather than prior to a shift – a decision United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts calls “a victory for miners everywhere.”

The court issued its judgment in favor of petitioners UMWA and United Steelworkers, among others, June 11, ruling that the pre-amendment standard be reinstated: Examinations must take place before miners begin their shifts.

“Because the 2018 amendment allows miners to work in an area before the examination is completed, there is the likelihood that miners may be exposed to an adverse condition before it is discovered,” the ruling states.

UMWA and USW applauded the court’s decision.

“Metal and nonmetal miners can now be more confident that their workplace is as safe as it can be before their shift starts, instead of learning about a safety hazard after they are already in the mine,” Roberts said in a June 12 press release. “All miners, whether working in a metal/nonmetal mine or a coal mine, should celebrate this ruling because it prevents MSHA from rolling back critical safety and health standards. If the agency had been allowed to get away with this, there is no question that we would soon be looking at a host of other attempts to reduce safety standards in every mine in America.”

The final rule amending provisions to the original rule was delayed numerous times before taking effect June 2, 2018.