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Chinese mines under scrutiny

Author : Amy Hollamby

02 November 2010

The recent Chilean mine disaster has sparked new fresh debate in China regarding work safety and rescue work in the domestic mining industry. China has made huge steps to improve mine safety in recent years, reducing the number of deaths to approximately 2,600 in 2009 from 7,000 in 2003 even though coal output has more than doubled.

Chinese mines under scrutiny
Chinese mines under scrutiny

China has closed illegal small mines with lax safety or absorbed them into state-owned companies. However, in the USA in 2009 coal mining fatalities totalled a record-low of 18, highlighting that although improvements have been made in China, there is still a long way to go. Chinese mines are still the world’s deadliest.

In October, a gas leak at a Pingyu Coal & Electric owned coal mine in Yuzhou City of central China's Henan Province killed 37 miners. The bodies of most of them, 20, were recovered within several hours but it took several days more to retrieve the other bodies. The coal mine operators failed to learn from a 2008 blast that killed 23 miners in the same pit. In recent weeks China has taken some action stating that all production must be halted at mines that cannot prevent gas blasts, fires and flooding.

An eye-catching rule that came into force in October states that chinese coal mine managers and engineers are now obliged to go down the mines they supervise at least five times a month to give them a personal interest in ensuring safety levels.

However, this new law is typical of the Chinese government who seem to bring out a new directive every time there is an accident, but these directives hardly seem to make a difference. Safety initiatives are often ignored and despite a previous government ban, small, private mines, still operate illegally and are known to cover up many fatal accidents. This somewhat haphazard approach to safety needs to be changed. Miners need to be well-trained, well-paid, understand the risks involved and be able to monitor dangers to ensure safety of their colleagues and the mine itself.

In the past investment into mine safety in China has been minimal. Now the situation is improving. To reduce the human costs a group of Chinese scientists are working on automated mining methods, such as robots or mining cars controlled from the surface. Pilot projects underway in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi province have shown that a large mine can reduce its workforce from more than 1,000 to under 100 miners.

China's mining problems reflect a general lack of safety awareness. Employers can get away with not protecting their workforce as the government has allowed employers to set pay and working conditions regardless of the laws.

China needs to learn from the successful rescue in Chile.

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