China’s annual coal mine death toll falls below 1,000 but no one seems to notice

At the end of January, China’s State Administration for Work Safety (SAWS) announced that the total number of coal mine accidents and deaths last year had fallen by 16.3 percent and 14.3 percent respectively. It did not however mention the actual figures.

Given that the death toll in 2013 had been 1,049, the figure for 2014 should be around 900. This would be the first time since the 1980s that the annual death toll in China’s coal mines was under 1,000. SAWS did not think this worthy of mention and the official Chinese media ignored the landmark as well.

It was not until 10 March, during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, that the director of SAWS, Yang Dongliang, announced that the actual death toll for last year was 931. The official media dutifully reported this as a brief news item but it was largely lost in the sudden flurry of media activity that always accompanies the NPC.

Lao Ye Temple Coal Mine. Photograph by lhoon available at flickr.com under a creative commons licence.

There are two main reasons why no one is paying much attention coal mine death and accident rates in China anymore; one domestic, the other international:

Domestically, the recent decline in the number of coal mine accidents and deaths is almost entirely due to the slump in China’s coal industry over the last two years. Domestic production fell by about 2.5 percent last year and there was a massive increase in coal stockpiles at China’s power plants. Lower production equals lower death and accident rates; it is as simple as that.

While it is true that the restructuring of the mining industry in the coal heartland of Shanxi in 2009 led to fewer deaths and accidents in that province, the Chinese government cannot point to any administrative or health and safety measures since then that could account for the apparently safer working environment in China’s coal mines.

Globally, China’s coal mines are no longer the world’s deadliest, in terms of deaths per million tons of production at least. That distinction now seems to be held by war-torn Ukraine, which has many illegal mine shafts as well as numerous poorly maintained Soviet-era mines, and Turkey, which has been aggressively expanding its coal mining industry in a headlong bid for higher economic growth.

Just last week, at least 33 miners died in an explosion at the notoriously dangerous Zasyadko mine near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. While on 13 May 2014, an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, western Turkey, led to the deaths of 301 miners. An investigative report published in September blamed the Soma disaster on gross negligence. The list of shortcomings, including the failure to respond to warnings of a fire risk, were depressingly similar to the failings commonly seen in Chinese coal mines at the height of the coal boom just a few years ago.

  • There was no refuge chamber in the mine, no proper escape plan, workers did not have proper training and were not allocated gas masks.
  • The mine’s gas sensors were not inspected and the ventilation system was not up to code.
  • Production levels at the mine were 2.5 times higher than originally planned for.
  • The mine was state-owned but operated by private contractors determined to cut costs and maximize profit.
  • Workers had reportedly detected problems in the mine’s electrical system 17 days before the explosion but management did nothing.

Five years before the Soma disaster, 108 workers were killed on 21 November 2009 in a gas explosion at the Xinxing Coal Mine in the north-eastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang. An investigation by the newspaper Southern Weekend showed that extremely dangerous levels of gas had been detected 43 minutes before the explosion but no warning had been issued to the miners underground.

  • Gas levels were 12 times the legal limit at the time of the explosion.
  • Despite the gas build-up, the mine’s electricity supply was not cut off until after the first explosion
  • Some miners continued working even after the initial explosion, unaware of the danger.
  • Workers told the newspaper that, under a recent policy change, gas inspectors at the mine no longer had the authority to order an evacuation; only managers now had that right.
  • Like the Soma mine, Xinxing was a state-owned entity but was operated as privately-run business, cutting costs and putting profit first.

Whether in Turkey or China, it is clear that the blind pursuit of profit is the primary underlying reason for coal mine disasters. If and when demand for coal in China increases again and prices start to climb, there is a real danger that China’s accident and death rate will start to increase too unless fundamental changes are made to the way mines are run. In the short-term, at least, that seems unlikely to happen.

Slogan promoting safety at the Xinxing mine. Photograph Southern Weekend

The response of many coal mines to the industry downturn has been to lay-off staff or to simply not pay their workers. There is little sign that mining companies are using this relatively quiet period to reinvest some of the vast profits already made into improved safety equipment and procedures, and in providing workers with safety training. It is far more likely that discarded workers will simply be called back when necessary and told to work in a mine shaft that is now even more dangerous than ever due to lack of maintenance.

China Labour Bulletin has consistently called for miners to become an integral part of the coal mine safety system in China. The workers and their trade union must have the right and the authority to ensure that all legal safety standards and practices are adhered to and to demand a halt in production in the face of imminent danger. We are currently a long way from that point but eventually China’s miners will demand and acquire the right to a working environment where “safety first” is not just a slogan but the reality.

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