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China coal mine safety improves, but fatalities still high

09 May 2013

A coal and gas outburst killed 21 miners at a colliery in Guizhou Province, Xinhua reported, adding that 58 more had managed to get to the surface safely. Four others were missing after the March 12 incident at the Machang coal mine, which is part of Guizhou Water & Mining Group.

In 2012, 1,384 people were killed in coal mine accidents, down from 1,973 in 2011, Xinhua said. Most of the accidents occurred in smaller coal mines, many illegal or unlicensed.

Although the official number of coal mine deaths has declined dramatically from nearly 7,000 per year a decade ago, deadly accidents remain common, especially in the less-well regulated regions of southwest China.

A new study in the Harvard Business Review of 276 Chinese enterprises operating in dangerous industries such as mining found a startling correlation between worker fatality rates and the political ‘connections’ of enterprise managers. The study revealed that ‘connected’ companies had five times as many worker deaths on average as unconnected companies.

The Hong-King-based China Labour Bulletin pointed out in a 2008 research report on the coal mining industry in China that one the key reasons why local government officials fail to enforce coal mine safety standards is the intricate web of collusion that exists between the mine owners and those government officials. In many cases, local government officials have a direct economic interest in the mine and are more interested in profit than safety.

Lack of safety training and experience has also been cited as a particular problem. Wu Zongzhi, director of the China Academy of Safety Science and Technology, told China Youth Daily that mining in China is overseen primarily by management personnel without safety expertise as well as temporary workers with little mining safety training.

Many of the mining deaths have been linked to equipment failure or malfunction. The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) said that 93% of gas explosions in mines were caused by problems with ventilation. The Chinese government has given all mines until the end of June to install emergency systems under a State Council order in 2010.

The authorities are also taking other practical steps to improve the situation. 

SAWS said on February 26 that it would no longer approve new coal mines that do not meet production capacity requirements in 2013 in order to ensure work safety. The country plans to close 5,000 small coal mines this year and is considering a rule to raise the annual production minimum for licensed mines in major coal producing regions to 3 million tons.

High-gas coal mines with an annual production of less than 300,000 tonnes, as well as coal and gas outburst mines with an annual production of less than 450,000 tonnes, will no longer be approved, the safety watchdog said.

And in January 2013, the administration put rules into effect that hold coal mine managers accountable for protecting their workers' lives. Managers are required to have proper operation licenses and provide better ventilation.

The authorities are also focusing on ensuring those in charge when accidents happen bear full responsibility.

As an example, on March 17, Xinhua quoted a municipal government statement reporting that 18 local government officials in Liupanshui City, Guizhou Province, had been punished following three fatal coal mine accidents over a five month period, including the Machang disaster. Another 23 miners were killed in a coal-gas burst at the Xiangshui Coal Mine in Panxian County last November.

The Liupanshui Municipal government said the director of the city's work safety department and the heads of Shuicheng and Panxian Counties were given administrative disciplinary sanctions, while the county deputy heads, the directors of the two work safety supervision bureaus and a township head were removed from their official posts.

Another two township government officials from Panxian County were dismissed from their posts within the Communist Party of China, according to the statement. Eight other local officials who were directly responsible for the accidents have been detained by the police, it said.

On February 16, Xinhua reported that 33 mining and government officials in western Gansu province were punished for covering up a flooding accident in January that left four workers dead.

Owners of the Jinyuan mine in Zhangye City reportedly tried to conceal the accident but were exposed by a whistle-blower, who notified safety authorities. Twenty civil servants with supervisory responsibilities were fired or given disciplinary sanctions, Xinhua said.

SAWS recorded a significant drop in fatality rates per volume of coal mined. Last year, 37 workers died per 100 million metric tons, down from 56.4 deaths in 2011, SAWS said.

While fatalities fell, coal production rose 4% to 3.66 billion tons, according to the China National Coal Association.

University of Sheffield professor Tim Wright, an expert on China’s coal industry, told Radio Free Asia that the claimed 30% improvement between 2011 and 2012 was hard to believe, and that there was no doubt that fatality figures were under-reported,

Despite this, Wright said that real progress still seemed likely because cover-ups had been a constant for years.

The explosion of social media may make concealment harder on the one hand, while motivation may be growing due to tougher penalties on the other.

SAWS is also targeting safety at non-coal mines, and has said it will suspend or shut down operations in over 5,000 non-coal mines that do not meet safety standards this year.

The target is to keep the death toll below 900 in these types of mines in 2013, SAWS said.

The administration said it will order mines to enhance safety measures, improve their emergency response mechanisms and build monitoring systems.

Xinhua quoted Chinese officials as saying  that the number of mining deaths in the country is still too high, and is much higher than the number in the United States. In 2012, there were 19 deaths in US coal mines according to the US Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The United States produced 1.02 billion short tons of coal, or about one-fourth of China's output, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. That would make China's fatality rates about 18 times as high.

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