NOEL KING, HOST:
Coal miners have been deemed essential workers during the pandemic, but they are also uniquely at risk, and advocates say they need to be protected. Here is Sydney Boles of WMMT and the Ohio Valley ReSource.
SYDNEY BOLES, BYLINE: Coal miners start their shifts getting changed in closely packed rooms. They ride rail cars to their worksite, shoulder to shoulder, sometimes for more than an hour. And once their underground, ventilation designed to tamp down coal dust circulates air through the mine.
BOBBY STEVENS: There's no possible way to stay 6 foot apart in the mines at all.
BOLES: Bobby Stevens mined coal for 11 years in Kentucky before he left the industry, in part because of concerns for worker safety. He doesn't trust coal companies to keep workers safe.
STEVENS: You can be on a section with 14 men. One guy gets sick, all 14 of them guys is going to get sick at one point in time with the same stuff that that other guy had.
BOLES: Then there were the health concerns for both current and retired miners. Dr. Brandon Crum is a radiologist in Pikeville, Ky., who identifies miners who have black lung disease, a progressive and deadly condition. He says even miners who don't have a black lung diagnosis can have reduced lung function after years or even decades underground.
BRANDON CRUM: Even though we know they're at high risk, being able to show that and document it and follow it is going to be very difficult, I think.
BOLES: Crum has started calling patients one by one to make sure they have protective equipment.
CRUM: That's the only way that I know to do it. So we're starting with the worst and working our way back to individually call these guys, and if they need masks, they can come in while the supplies last.
BOLES: The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, says it encourages coal mine operators to take health precautions. Some mines have closed voluntarily, and one mine operator told me he started providing hand sanitizer to his men. But MSHA has not issued specific policies to keep mine workers safe. Any precautions mine operators want to take are voluntary. That's not good enough, says Joe Main, assistant secretary for MSHA under the Obama administration.
JOE MAIN: When the government declares a national emergency and tells those that are considered essential workers, go to work to make sure the economy continues to operate, but we're really not going to make sure you're protected the way that you should be - that's wrong.
BOLES: Coal miners have tested positive for COVID-19 in at least two Alabama coal mines and one in Pennsylvania. But MSHA says it doesn't have comprehensive data on how many miners have tested positive for COVID-19. They're not keeping track. And coal states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming are not providing numbers, either. John Mura is with the Energy and Environment Cabinet in Kentucky.
JOHN MURA: You have to understand that coal companies are not required to notify the cabinet of any positive COVID-19 tests, and we do not know of any inspectors or miners who have gotten ill.
BOLES: Bobby Stevens, the former coal miner we heard from earlier, said he's worried for miners who may have black lung disease and not know it or know they have the disease and work anyway.
STEVENS: But them guys has probably got the same mentality as I do - got a family to feed; got to go for it.
BOLES: Workers are facing extra pressure during the pandemic as demand for energy collapses. Many mines have laid off workers or even shut down.
For NPR News, I'm Sydney Boles in Whitesburg, Ky.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "HUSBANDS AND HANGMEN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.