Tania Branigan in Beijing
5 November 2011
Eight coalminers have died and several others remain missing after an explosion underground in China, state media has reported.
Rescuers have pulled 51 miners alive from the Qianqiu shaft in Sanmenxia, in central Henan province, according to state media. The explosion followed a small earthquake in the area. The miners had been digging a tunnel about 760m long, which seemed to have "basically folded" at 480m after the blast, Xinhua said.
The People's Daily website said more than 200 workers dug another tunnel to try to reach the trapped miners. The Communist party's head of propaganda in Yima said survival prospects depended on the intensity of the initial explosion and whether rescuers could provide ventilation.
The pit produces about 2.1m tonnes of coal a year and belongs to the Yima Coal Group, a state-owned firm. Xinhua said Luo Lin, head of the state administration of work safety, and the Henan governor, Guo Gengmao, were at the scene.
China has reduced the number of deaths in mines from a peak of almost 7,000 in 2002 to 2,433 last year, in large part due to a campaign to close illegal mines and merge smaller ones with state enterprises. But miners in China are still much more likely to die on the job than those in the developed world. On Saturday an explosion at a mine in Hunan, southern China, killed 29 workers.
The chief engineer for the state administration of work safety, Huang Yi, said this year that the fatality rate per million tons of coal produced had fallen 73% in the last five years and would fall another 28% over the next five. But he warned that safety culture had still not taken root in most mines.
Campaigners say closing illegal mines is only a first step and that the government needs to focus more on proper management. "Just because you have large state-owned mines doesn't mean they are properly managed or that safety has been made a high priority," said Geoff Crothall, of Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
He said better government supervision and more worker involvement was needed. "They are not listened to at all. The attitude of mine bosses is: if you don't go down we will get someone else," Crothall said.
"That's precisely the attitude that has to change. It is not asking too much for workers to have the right to go to work one day and come home to their families in the evening. That basic human right is all too often ignored by mine bosses and local governments."
But he said there was some cause for optimism in Shanxi, China's coal heartland, where the official trade union is seeking to help miners establish a system of collective wage negotiations and hopes it can also develop agreements on work safety.