VIRGINIA, MN –- The 2019 St. Louis County Mine Inspectors Report, released this spring, predicted a positive outlook for the mining industry in 2020. That quickly changed once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
While the steel industry appears to be on the road to recovery after a tough few months, there's still a big hill to climb. It includes keeping workers safe and keeping COVID-19 out of local mines.
With a roster of more than 4,000 people to watch out for mine inspectors play an important role in the local iron mining industry.
"Our ultimate goal is to ensure the safety and health of the miners," said Derek Harbin.
He is one of three people tasked with that job.
"We're currently inspecting six mining faciltiies; seven if you include mining resources which is also an active at the moment."
On top of that, mine inspectors also conduct accident investigations and inspect abandoned mining sites. But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit they were forced to adjust their workflow.
"The most challenging part is just how it's changing, you know. It's a real concern, everybody is concerned about it, and our job is to help the mining companies, help our union miners, everyone on a mine site be safe," said Harbin. "So we're trying to do our research, help in anyway we can to ensure their safety."
Harbin said a big part of that comes down to communication.
"The mining companies, the union members, and then the inspectors have been working collaboratively to ensure that we're doing the best we possibly can in these difficult times to ensure the safety and health of the miners with this going on."
While the mine inspectors office won't begin putting together data for 2020 until year's end, Harbin anticipates some big differences in comparison to the year before.
"With a few of the facilities shutting down we're going to see man-hours drop, we're going to see production numbers drop, and the number of employed, is kind of what we're anticipating."
Despite those obstacles, pellet production is picking back up and people are heading back to work.
For Harbin, that's a bright spot in what has been a dark time.
"We're just taking it day by day and listening to what the experts are saying and following the recommendations and just trying to do the right thing."
The 2020 Mine Inspectors report won't be out until early 2021.
You can take a look at the most recent report here.