The United Mine Workers of America International Union announced June 16 that it has taken legal action intended to force the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect miners from COVID-19.

According to a statement from UMWA, the organization filed a petition for a writ of mandamus and request for expedited briefing and disposition along with the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In the filing, the unions are asking for an expedited hearing process with a ruling on the petition to be issued within 30 days of the court granting the writ.

UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement that the protections are needed due to the unique nature of coal mining and the danger the coronavirus COVID-19 presents for miners.

“We have been asking MSHA to step up and do its job to protect America’s miners from the beginning of this pandemic,” Roberts said in the statement. “But so far, the agency has refused. You would think that those who are charged with keeping miners safe would want to actually do so. It is very disappointing that they have turned their backs on these critical workers.

“Working in a mine is very different from working in any other workplace,” Roberts continued. “The air is circulated throughout the mine, meaning an airborne disease like COVID-19 can spread among workers who are far removed from one another. A six-foot social distance is meaningless in an underground environment.”

According to the petition, miners have been classified as “essential” and have continued working through the pandemic.

The petition notes that the UMWA petitioned MSHA in March to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard, but the agency declined, claiming that “the risks miners face from exposure to coronavirus are quite similar to the risks encountered by other Americans,” and recommending a set of voluntary actions that miners could take to mitigate their risks.

The petition claims that MSHA’s denial of an ETS is an abuse of agency discretion of “such magnitude” that it amounts to a “clear abdication of statutory responsibility.” The petition also notes that reopening actions currently taking place across the nation will result in even more miners returning to work.

“If MSHA fails to issue an ETS to address this unprecedented crisis, the life and health of tens of thousands of miners will be placed in grave danger as a result of the miners’ increased exposure to COVID-19,” the petition said.

The petition also notes that there has been at least one documented case of a COVID-19 outbreak at a coal mine on the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border and that miners face an enhanced danger from the worst of COVID-19.

“... At least on in 10 underground coal miners suffers from Black Lung disease, though experts say the actual number is probably higher,” the petition said. “Lung scarring caused by Black Lung disease makes the risk posed by COVID-19 all the greater. Moreover, the nature of mining makes ‘common sense’ preventative measures, as practiced by the general public, nearly impossible.”

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