20080312-COAL 551888115_1bbf7468e9.jpg China's coal mines are the most dangerous in the world even though the industry's safety record has improved in recent years as smaller, illegal mines have been closed. Chinese miners are 350 times more likely to die at their workplace than their American or British counterparts. In terms of production the statistics are even worse. In China there are 7.29 deaths per million tons of coal produced, compared to 0.04 deaths in the United States, 0.47 deaths in India, and 0.23 deaths in Poland. There are nearly as many fatalities a day (16) in Chinese mines as there are in U.S. mines in a year (22). Chinese officials acknowledge more than 2,000 coal mining deaths annually, compared with fewer than 50 in the United States.

China accounts for a third of the world’s coal production but forth-fifths of the world's coal mining deaths. Miners die in floods, gas explosions, fires, collapsing tunnels and from carbon monoxide poisoning. About 70 percent of the deaths occur in the small mines. In 1996-2000, the annual death toll averaged 7,619, a staggering rate of over 20 per day, according official reports. In 1990, the ratio of deaths per million metric tons of coal mined stood at 6.1, a 2004 study at Chinese University of Hong Kong found. In 2014, the ratio fell to 0.24, RFA calculated from official reports. [Source: Michael Lelyveld, Radio Free Asia, August 15, 2016]

Mine disasters that kill 10 to 20 or so miners occur several times a year most years although less recently. In 2006, 4,746 miners were killed — 13 a day — in 2,845 accidents, mainly in underground explosions and flooding. In 2005, 5,986 died; 6,027 died in 2004 and 6,702 died in 2003. In some accounts 6,121 died in 2002. In other nearly 7,000 died that year. According to the Chinese government 2,632 coal miners (seven miners a day) were killed in 2009, less than half the 6,995 (19.1 a day) who died in 2002, the most dangerous year in record. In 2007, 3,786 miners died, a marked decrease from previous years but still a lot. Many attribute the decline in the number of deaths to the shutting down of unsafe mines. About nine mine workers were killed a day in 2008. In the United States there were 47 coal mining deaths in 2006 and 22 in 2005 and 28 in 2004. In 2006 there were 119,000 miners so the death rate was one per 2,500 miners. Coal deaths peaked in the U.S. In 1910 with 2,821. In 1920 there were 2,272 deaths among about 850,000 miners.

Annual fatalities in the late 2000s and early 2010s were about one-third what they were were when they peaked at nearly 7,000 in 2002. According to the Chinese government 2,632 coal miners (seven miners a day) were killed in 2009, less than half the 6,995 (19.1 a day) who died in 2002, the most dangerous year in record. In 2010, 2,433 people died in coal mine accidents in China, according to official statistics (more than six workers per day).

China said that coal mine deaths down hit a record low of 931 in 2014, down 87 percent from 2013 when China's National Coal Administration reported 1,067 deaths in 604 coal mining accidents in 2013. This is down from 1,384 in 2012 A total of 3,786 people died in coal mine accidents in 2007, down 20 percent from 2006. Official figures show that 1,973 people died in coal mining accidents in 2011, a 19 percent decrease from 2010 when around 1,600 died.

Sketchy Data and Numbers on Coal Mine Deaths in China

Many think that accidents are grossly under-reported. Labour rights groups say the actual death toll is likely much higher, partly due to under-reporting of accidents as mine bosses seek to limit their economic losses and avoid punishment. Some think that a many as 20,000 miners die every year in accidents. Add to this another 5 million who die from lung afflictions and other work-related diseases. Many believe that many deaths go unreported and the true death toll could be over 10,000 a year. And this doesn’t count miners who die from black lung and other respiratory ailments.

Michael Lelyveld of Radio Free Asia wrote: Official reports have grown sketchy and sporadic, suggesting that the death tally of "major" accidents was intended to make a point. The major accident category represents only a fraction of China's coal mining deaths, but comprehensive figures have not been publicized, making it unclear whether total fatalities went up or down. SAWS defines major accidents as those that kill over 10 people, injure over 50 or result in direct economic losses over 50 million yuan (U.S. $7.5 million), Xinhua said. [Source: Michael Lelyveld, Radio Free Asia, August 15, 2016]

“Trying to construct complete figures from official reports of State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) SAWS statements is difficult. On April 25, the agency said coal mine accidents in the first quarter dropped 36.2 percent from a year earlier, while the death toll had decreased by 4.7 percent. But 10 days later, SAWS said that coal accidents in the four-month period through April rose 40 percent, Xinhua reported. Speaking at the SAWS press conference, a coal safety official cited 205 deaths from all coal accidents during the six-month period, an increase from 116 in the year-earlier period, according to a transcript. But neither figure appears to correlate with the death rates reported for 2014 or the first quarter of this year. In December 2015, Xinhua reported a 68-percent drop in deaths from major coal accidents for an 11-month period of 2015 without citing a figure for all accidents. In January, another report cited a 37-percent decline in mine deaths from gas explosions last year without giving a figure for all fatalities. In April, Xinhua also reported the first-quarter decrease in coal deaths using percentage terms without disclosing the fatality numbers for either the quarterly period or all of 2015.

“The pattern of publishing partial or cherry-picked data is usually seen as putting the best face on China's progress, making it all the more exceptional to report the rise in major accidents. Tim Wright, an authority on China's coal industry and professor emeritus of Chinese studies at Britain's University of Sheffield, said that experts have been debating whether the previous reductions in accidents have resulted from capacity cuts. "But this argues the opposite," Wright said in an email message, referring to the SAWS account of deferred maintenance during the prolonged process.

Wright criticized the release of partial data on coal mine accidents. The reports "are often ambiguous as between total fatalities and major accidents," he said. The uncertainty may only make it harder to corroborate claims of reduced death tolls. Wright said the central and provincial governments have both cut back on releasing more specific safety statistics by types of mines over the past decade. The "cessation of publication of more detailed statistics (is) both annoying and puzzling," said Wright, arguing that it would be in China's best interest to issue complete reports. "If you have a good news story, surely you should make the information as widely and fully available as possible," he said.

Mining Companies, Deaths and Injuries in China

Miners are also routinely injured and maimed on the job. Many have their arms broken, finger crushed and hands split open by picks. Other get their teeth knocked out or shoulders broken by falling rocks. Yet others suffer broken ribs, collapsed lungs and damaged internal organs when they are crushed by coal cars. In one family interviewed by the Los Angeles Times one son was killed in a mine accident; another lost his arm when it was jerked off his body by a runaway coal cart. Another had his shoulder shattered by falling rocks. Another sustained crushed ribs when floorboards collapsed.

Mining companies routinely ignore safety equipment and procedures, exceed the number of miners allowed in the mines at one time to boost production far beyond what is safe. Even state-owned mines are dangerous. One miner in Datong told the New York Times, "Our mine is pretty safe. The owner knows that mine must be safe if it is to keep operating. Still, small accidents happen constantly. Doing such hard physical work at piece rates, it's unavoidable."

Efforts to close mines small have been hampered by local governments who rely on the mines for revenues and to provide employment. Lives are often lost when mine managers try to cover up accidents rather than launching immediate rescue operations. Mines were accidents occur often open right back up after media attention on the disaster starts to fade.

Efforts to Improve Coal Mine Safety in China

Mines are much safer than they were in the mid 2000s. Huang Yi, the deputy administrator of a work safety agency, told the New York Times stricter scrutiny, regulations and the closing of 12,000 mines had cut the death rate by three-fourths since 2002. There are some illegal coal mines that still operate because they are protected by local officials, Huang said, but fewer and fewer. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

China's government has repeatedly pledged to make the mining industry safer, but large-scale rescue successes remain relatively rare. In 2010, the government issued a policy that required six kinds of safety systems, including rescue facilities, to be installed in all coal mines within three years. But Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, argues that Beijing’s top-down approach can only do so much to make local officials more accountable. We don’t have the grass-roots democracy; we don’t have independent labor unions; we don’t have checks and balances; we don’t have any system of official accountability, he said.

Work-safety officials are trying to fill the gap with hot lines, a Web site link, and even rewards to informants. But in a country that relies on coal for most of its electricity, powerful financial incentives lie behind unsafe mines.

Beijing officials have tried for years to close illegal coal mines. But these days, illegal mining appears to be worse than ever. Accidents in illegal coal mines are frequent, and many victims' families keep silent after they receive some sort of compensation. According to a June report in The Beijing News, every coal mine in the area where Tong died has been officially closed by the local government. But in fact, the digging continues.

Closing Down Unsafe Mines in China

There are regulations and inspections and periodic campaigns that result in the closing down of unsafe mines. In 1997, there were 82,000 mines in operation. By 2002, only 23,000 were operating if government statistics are to be believed. That year government officials aimed to close down 15,000 mines. As of 2006, 23,000 small mines were still operating.

Many doubt the effectiveness of campaigns that close down mines. Many mines open right back up. It is not uncommon for a mine to reopen days after a disaster has occurred. Some operate during the night to avoid detection, which is especially dangerous. Bribes are paid to mine officials to look the other way on safety matters. Efforts to punish mine owners have often backfired, encouraging them to cover up deaths, flee accidents and even hide the bodies of the dead.

Between 2005 and 2008, 11,155 illegal mines were shut down according to the Chinese government.A total of 2,411 mines were closed down and 12,900 were ordered to suspend operations for safety violations in a single campaign that ended in December 2005. Not eveyone was happy about the campaign. In August 2005, 800 policemen clashed with armed villagers in Guangxi Province after people in the area resisted attempts to close down a mine

China shut down more than 8,000 dangerous illegal mines in 2006. One order called for all illegal mines to stop work immediately, dismantle their equipment and hand in explosives in 15 days. Still tens of thousands of other continued to operate. It was not clear why certain mines were closed and other were allowed to remain open.

In April 2006, the Chinese government announced that it would close down all small coal mines — those with a production capacity of less than 30,000 tons “or encourage them to merge with larger, safer mines. As part of the campaign Beijing ordered all government officials to get rid of their shares in the mines. The goal is to reduce the number of mines from 23,000 to 10,000 by 2010.

The are concerns that closing unsafe mine while exacerbate China’s power shortage problem.

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Corruption, Cover Ups and Mine Disasters in China

Reporting from coal country in Shanxi Province, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Under China’s authoritarian system, superiors reward subordinates for strict compliance with targets set from above, like reducing mine disasters. Should one occur, the incentive to hide it is often stronger than the reward for handling it well. A disaster on a bureaucrat’s watch is almost surely a blot on his career. A scandal buried quietly, under truckloads of dirt, may never be discovered. Work-safety officials in Beijing complain that even more than in other industries, death tolls from accidents at coal mines are often ratcheted down or not reported at all. That is because of the risky profits to be made — by businessmen and corrupt local officials — exploiting dangerous coal seams with temporary, unskilled workers in thousands of illegal mines. China’s lack of a free press, independent trade unions, citizen watchdog groups and other checks on official power makes cover-ups more possible, even though the Internet now makes it harder to suppress information completely.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 10, 2009]

“Here in Yu County, where roads divide towering pyramids of coal and the poor rake the ravaged land in search of loose chunks, local officials were widely assumed to be in league with mine operators. According to one local government official, nearly half of the county’s 200 mines operated illegally last year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is politically delicate.Everyone in Yu County thinks this accident was very typical, he said. If Mao was still in power, these local officials would be executed.

An investigation into the gas explosion on December 2007 that killed 105 miners at the Xinyao Coal Mine in a suburb of Linfen in Shanxi Province revealed that bribes were given to regulatory officials who allowed unsafe practices. The investigation prompted authorities to take the unprecedented action of suspending mining in the region, causing industries to shut down and workers to become idle. The investigation revealed that Xinyao was harvesting a seem that had not been approved for production and double the number of miners allowed to work in mine were working at the time of the accident. To hide illegal activities, mine operators waited five hours after the blast to seek help. During that time it sent a rescue team made up fellow miners who themselves became trapped, adding to the death toll. The central figure in the scandal was a deputy mayor named Miao Yuanali who was in charge of deciding which mines could stayed open and which had to close. Over a seven year period, he accepted more than $1 million in bribes to allow mines to stay open. He and a number of other officials were implicated and punished in various ways with most of them being forced from their jobs and expelled from the Communist party.

In 2008, in Shanxi Province, two journalists and 26 people posing as journalists were accused of taking money to cover up a coal mine accident in which a worker was killed. The same year, just two weeks after the Lijiawa disaster, officials in Shanxi Province announced that 11 people had been killed in a natural landslide. After another Internet-lodged complaint, investigators discovered that 41 villagers had been buried under a torrent of rocks and waste from an iron mine.

Image Sources: Environmental News, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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