An official investigation by China’s State Council has revealed that a coal mine in the north-eastern province of Jilin had routinely covered up workplace accidents and deaths over the last two years.
The investigation was triggered by two massive gas explosions within the space of three days this year at the Babao Coal Mine, owned by the Tonghua Mining Group, state media reported today.
The first explosion on 29 March killed 36 miners but the company only reported 28 deaths and 13 injuries in an attempt to avoid a high-level investigation. Any mine accident causing 30 or more deaths is classified as an accident with exceptional (特别重大) loss of life, and automatically triggers a State Council-led investigation. On 5 April however the safety authorities received a tip-off that the actual death toll was above 30, and the next day the provincial government confirmed that the final death toll was actually 36.
Six days earlier, on 1 April, a second explosion at the Babao Mine killed 17 workers and injured eight others. The workers had been ordered down into the mine in an attempt to repair the gas leak in spite of a government ban on all mine operations.
The State Council investigation further revealed that the mine had also covered-up the deaths of six workers in five other accidents in 2012, and that three gas explosions that occurred in 2013 prior to the 29 March tragedy were not reported at all.
The under-reporting or non-reporting of coal mine deaths and accidents is still commonplace in China. Mine owners, in collusion with local government officials, often calculate that it is more cost effective simply to pay off the relatives of the dead and others close to the scene than report the accident and risk having the mine closed down by the safety authorities.
China’s State Administration for Work Safety has been quite candid in its acknowledgement of this practice and has vowed to “severely punish those who cover up accidents, lie or delay their reports.” However, there is little evidence so far that this crackdown has been an effective deterrent.
According to official figures, a total of 1,384 workers died in coal mine accidents in China last year, sharply down from 1,973 in 2011. The figures do not include the millions of miners who have contracted pneumoconiosis and other deadly lung diseases whilst working in the mines.