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News Extra: China coal mine deaths in 2014 lowest ever, although doubts remain over official figures

03 August 2015

China has announced continuing progress in reducing coal mine fatalities. On March 10, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) told a Beijing press conference that coal mine accidents claimed 931 lives last year, the first time the death toll has ever dropped below 1,000. 

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Speaking on the sidelines of China's annual legislative sessions, SAWS director Yang Dongliang said: "The nation is still confronted with grave and complicated challenges in coal mine work safety, and the authorities aim to achieve a zero-death target."

Government efforts to tighten safety rules and close 2,000 smaller, more dangerous mines by the end of 2005 have led to dramatic cuts in official death counts and injuries over recent years. The 2014 fatality figure represented an 86.7% decline on the death toll of almost 7,000 in 2002, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

But there are some doubts about the accuracy of these improved figures. An enquiry earlier this year by Radio Free Asia points out discrepancies in supposed improvement rates in mine fatalities from official sources. In some cases, comparing mine accident rates and coal production with fatality statistics led to improvements only half as good as those claimed, RFA said.

And the Hong Kong-based workers rights publication China Labour Bulletin pointed out that any improved fatality figures were partly due to the recent decline in coal production.
Nevertheless, there is evidence of safety improvements and regulatory crackdowns in some parts of the country. 

The Chinese government seems to be focusing more closely on prevention of methane gas explosions to reduce the fatality rate further. The National Energy Administration (NEA) said in a statement that 266 people were killed in 47 coal mine gas accidents last year, Xinhua said on February 12.

The number of deaths from methane gas blasts was down 27.5% from 2013, the NEA said, without giving the total of number of fatalities from all accidents in coal mines.

Tim Wright, an expert on China coal mine safety and professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Britain's University of Sheffield, was quoted in the RFA study as saying that official classifications of ‘serious’ accidents (10 or more deaths) and ‘exceptionally serious’ accidents (30 or more deaths) may help the government to portray progress in a more favourable light.
High priority was given to controlling methane as gas explosions were responsible for a large number of the worst disasters, he said.

But the thresholds for defining major accidents have their drawbacks, as they may lead some mine operators to try to falsify statistics to avoid higher penalties for each category of fatalities. The highest accident category of 30 or more deaths automatically triggers an investigation led by the State Council, so there is an incentive to minimise casualties.

In a recent case involving the accident definitions in 2013, a State Council probe found that mine operators in northeastern Jilin province understated the death toll from a gas explosion to avoid falling into the 30-or-more category.

The Babao Coal Mine Co. in Baishan City reported 28 deaths and 13 injuries from the accident, although the real death toll reached 36, Xinhua reported at the time.

Investigators then found that the mine had concealed six additional deaths in five other accidents during 2012. Seventeen more miners died in another explosion in 2013, when the mine ignored a government-ordered shutdown, Xinhua said.

In January 2014, a district court sentenced 14 managers and officials in the case to jail terms ranging from 10 months to five years.

In September, prosecutors also began investigating a mine fire that killed 24 workers at an illegal operation in Lushan County of central Henan province that was allegedly covered up since 2009.

Officials of the county's Coal Industry Bureau and the Bureau of Land and Resources are under investigation, Xinhua said.

So although the fatality trend in China’s coal mines is undoubtedly improving, widespread cover-ups and corruption are obscuring the true extent of that improvement.

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