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Doran & Lopez: How mining responded swiftly to the crisis

By and |  March 30, 2020
Headshot: Bill Doran, Ogletree Deakins

Doran

Headshot: Margo Lopez

Lopez

Editor’s note: This article was updated April 17 with pertinent details from a national stakeholder conference call the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) conducted April. 16.

One of the most remarkable strengths of miners and the mining industry is their ability to adapt to new and changing circumstances and conditions.

Seemingly intractable maintenance issues and mining conditions – which, to the rest of us, seem completely impossible to resolve – are regularly sorted out with a healthy dose of planning, determination and flexibility.

While this can-do spirit has been tested during the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, to date, the mining community has continued to effectively perform its essential work.

How they’ve done it

This has been accomplished by applying a variety of best practices, which, in many cases, were developed and modified on the fly to meet the rapidly changing pandemic environment.

Along with implementing the now standard range of proactive measures to maintain safe and healthy workplaces (i.e., following Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) guidelines, limiting or restricting in-person meetings, and implementing remote work for certain employees), mine operators are employing a variety of social distancing and hygiene practices to slow the spread of the virus.

These practices include a number of measures that have helped mining operations quickly adapt to the onslaught of new information and health threats. These practices include:

• Designating a COVID-19 response/communication team to provide daily information to the workforce via email, the web or intranet
• Clearly identifying essential and non-essential tasks
• Limiting visitor property access to personnel essential to continued operations (i.e., service and maintenance)
• Establishing a mandatory COVID-19 declaration policy for essential visitors/contractors
• Disseminating Q&As to the workforce to promptly address questions and rumors
• Staggering start times to avoid crowds and enabling effective social distancing
• Operating skeleton crews to limit exposure
• Limiting shared tools, requiring gloves and sanitizing when sharing cannot be avoided
• Establishing one-person-per-vehicle policies and prohibiting ride-sharing
• Postponing annual refresher training, consistent with MSHA’s provided grace periods
• Developing a quarantine policy should personnel test positive for COVID-19
• Developing a controlled shutdown plan should a workplace exposure or a state or federal order mandate such action

Certainly, none of this has been easy. Mining personnel are accustomed to identifying hazards in their workplace and limiting exposure to those hazards.

In the current crisis, however, personnel are confronted by an invisible, existential danger that threatens them beyond the workplace. That stress is compounded by the fact that the same threat is posed to their families and loved ones at home.

This presents added stress for personnel who cannot work remotely. Cognizant of this situation, a number of operators have encouraged their employees to utilize their employee assistance programs to provide added support.

Working with MSHA

Logo: MSHA

In the midst of this effort to maintain safe and healthy operations, MSHA posted an information sheet online titled “Safety First 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” The sheet addresses some of the countless questions posed by operators about how to mesh the CDC’s requested social distancing practices with mandatory compliance efforts.

In this guidance, MSHA reiterates that it will continue to conduct mandatory inspections and investigations, but the agency offers some relief in certain areas. In particular, the guidance provides the following:

• Suspending Educational Field Service, Small Mines Service and special safety initiative visits
• Directing inspectors to maintain social distancing to the extent feasible
• Providing extensions for operator compliance with Parts 46/48 annual refresher training
• Providing extensions for sampling, maintenance and calibration certification
• Encouraging inspectors to voluntarily participate in mine operator screenings and questionnaires regarding COVID-19 status and exposure

Industry associations such as the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, the Portland Cement Association and the National Mining Association are working closely with MSHA to encourage a more robust response to the social distancing concerns of mine operators and miners regarding multiple-inspector inspections and procedures for removing dosimeters and air sampling devices.

In turn, some MSHA districts have begun to request information from operators about any COVID-19 exposures at operations so that their inspectors can be warned. It is a fluid situation that changes daily. Operators should keep an eye on msha.gov for updates and keep abreast of industry communications on best practices.

Mid-April update

On April 16, MSHA conducted a national stakeholder conference call that largely reiterated much of the guidance on its website. Several additional items were discussed, though.

For instance, administrator Tim Watkins confirmed that a miner contracting the coronavirus is not a reportable illness unless it can be demonstrated that the virus was contracted at work. Additionally, it was explained that in conducting personal air and noise monitoring, inspectors have been instructed to lay the instrument down, disinfect it and then allow the miners to place the instrument on their person.

MSHA also stated that the agency was not in a position to relax the requirement that respiratory protection utilized for mine respiratory hazards be National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health approved. It was clarified, however, that the agency’s standards do not address the coronavirus.

Final thoughts

This crisis has reinforced the importance of sharing safety and health information between miners, mine operators and MSHA. That information exchange has been critical to slowing the rate of exposure and maintaining the ability of the industry to remain in operation and provide critical production for the nation’s infrastructure.

Bill Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins. They can be reached at william.doran@ogletree.com and margaret.lopez@ogletree.com.


For additional P&Q coverage related to the coronavirus, visit our dedicated webpage.


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