The past few months have seen a destructive cycle of coal mine accidents occurring one after another, followed by frantic government officials issuing forth directives and notices urging better protection of work health and safety.
Recent statements by the Director of the State Administration of Production Safety reveal that 380 people died each day in accidents (industrial and other work related accidents including traffic accidents) a figure that reportedly results in more than 1000 billion Yuan (12 billion US dollars) in direct economic loses each year. Although Director Wang Xianzheng stated that production safety has improved in some areas, the direct and indirect economic losses per year caused by industrial accidents alone totaled over 200 billion Yuan or 2.5 percent of Chinas GDP. (As reported in Xinhua 2 September 2003.)
Mining remains one of the most deadly industries in China. Despite some improvements over the past decade or so, official figures put the number of mine workers who died in 2002 as between 5,791 and 6,557, an increase over 2001. According to official statistics in the first half of 2003, the fatality rate per million tons of coal production in coalmines nationwide was 3.824, compared to 0.1 in Australia and the United States.
Without counting the number of incidents and accidents which go unreported or are covered up, an average of 18 mine workers are killed each day in China.
The following list gives a summary of some, but not all, of the fatal accidents in Chinas mines during the summer:
1 September: Henan Province, Yichuang County, Fenjin Coal Mine: Flooding trapped 16 miners and a construction team.
18 August: Shanxi Province, Jingzhong City, Zuoquan County: A gas explosion killed 17 mine workers and left a further ten trapped. They are now believed dead.
13 August: Shanxi Province, Yangquan City: An explosion killed 28 miners.
11 August: Shanxi province, Datong, Xingergou Mine: Over 37 miners died during a gas explosion. Five are still missing. Two of the coal mine employees have been detained.
8 August: Hunan Province, Shuangfeng County: Gas explosion killed four and injured ten.
7 August: Sichuan Province, Chongqing Municipality, Yanwan village owned coal mine:12 workers out of 22 working remained trapped underground. A flood apparently caused by work accidentally digging into a nearby abandoned mine shaft.
26 July: Shandong province, Mushi Coal Mine, Zhaozhuang: 35 bodies were recovered after the mine flooded and collapsed onto an illegal mine shaft. Two miners managed to escape.
22 July: Inner Mongolia, Wuhai City: Five died in a flood in a privately owned mine
21 July: Hebei Province, Jishi Coal Mine: 29 miners trapped in flood, 17 escaped, the remaining 11 believed dead.
14 July: Shanxi Province, Baishui Township, Fengjiahe Township coal mine: Three miners died, the remaining three are still trapped and believed dead, a further 17 escaped during a flood caused by use of explosives .
13 July: Henan, Dongfeng Coal Mine, Baiping Township: 21 miners killed in coal flood.
12/13 July: Henan Province, Dongfeng Coal mine, Dengfeng city: Fifteen dead and a further six missing, believed dead in flood.
1 July: Shanxi Province, Hancheng: Four miners died in accident.
It is not known how many of these mines were operating legally, although figures from the State Administration of Work Safety suggest that over two thirds of all serious accidents in coal mines occur in those operating without permits and ignoring official orders to halt production.
Shanxi province is a major coal producer and has hundreds of small and medium sized coal mines with hundreds of illegal mines operating. The recent spate of accidents in the coal rich province of Shanxi led the provincial government to issue a new law which will hold senior officials at all levels responsible for coal mine accidents and allow for them to be severely punished if causalities occur. In addition, the provincial authorities ordered all mines in Shanxi to stop production for one week to undertake production checks. Only five major state owned mines were allowed to continue operating. Governor Liu Zhenhua, reportedly stated that it was of vital importance to control the number of mines and completely shut down unauthorized mines in the process of establishing efficient supervision of production safety.
It was also reported in the China Daily that more than 80 officials in Shanxi will be held responsible for a series of major accidents from October to March 2003. Eighteen will face criminal charges while a further 64 will be subject to administrative discipline. Vice-Governor Jin Shanzhong, told a tele-conference that no efforts should be spared to guarantee the well-being of workers. He also urged coal mine managers as well as officials responsible for coal output to take full accountability for safe production and to ensure that precautions are in place to prevent similar disasters.
Despite clear and longstanding regulations expressly banning unlicensed coal mines and existing stipulations which outline penalties for those ignoring the ban, in Weinan city, Shanxi province, the local authorities issued a notice in June/July ordering all mine operators to close down unlicensed coal mines immediately and to show no tolerance to illegal mine operators or those guilty of over-production. The fact that the authorities continue to have to issue such notices which mirror existing laws clearly shows how little progress has been made in actually implementing such bans on unlicensed mines. However, the Government additionally stated that if it found any unlicensed mines still operating, they would be blown up and in the first three weeks of July, three mines were reportedly blown up, including the Hancheng County mine, the scene of an explosion on 1 July which killed four miners.
It was also announced in July, that the provincial government is planning to construct an information network to undertake long distance surveillance of coal mine safety to be finished by the end of 2004. The network is designed to monitor hidden danger reporting, accident alarms, security surveillance, on line training and information sharing.
After the major accident at the Anli coal mine on 24 May which killed 15 miners, local officials stated that out of the 17 people allegedly responsible for the accident, a total of eight including the manager, Liu Baosheng would be prosecuted for negligence. Zhang Daofeng, a manager with Long'an District Office for Administration of Mineral Resources, was dismissed from the civil service for issuing a license to the Anli Colliery without inspecting the mine. He will face prosecution, and four other government officials have been removed from their civil service posts. The remaining officials have been given administrative punishments. In addition, three other mines where a total of 43 mine workers were killed in recent months were closed for violating safety procedures and for mining beyond their agreed boundaries. The three mines are reportedly; Dongfeng Coal Mine in Baiping Township of Dengfeng City, Anli Coalmine in Long'an District of Anyang City, and Shengli No. 2 Colliery in Yichuan County.
In the aftermath of the flood at the Dongfeng Coal mine on 13 July, the mines legal representative, its foreman and other administrative personnel fled the area after allegedly preventing escaped miners from reporting the accident to the local authorities and preventing rescue work. Rescue teams only arrived at the mine some ten hours after the accident occurred. Six officials were later caught by local police, including the deputy head of the mine, Li Honglin; the chief technician, Sun Guangjian; the mine's legal representative, Fan Guoxue; and the mine controller Niu Shuyun. The head of the mine and its main shareholder surrendered to the police. Dongfeng Coal Mine is a township-owned mine which has been operating for over 10 years. It was ordered to close down in 2002 for a period of two years to undertake improvements in its production safety but re-opened last year after passing a production safety examination
In Shandong, the investigation into the accident at Mushi coal mine discovered that the flood was due to a shaft collapsing under the weight of water coming through a passage leading to an unregistered and illegal shaft. The mine was reportedly operating illegal shafts around the coal mine proper, and which the owners had failed to identify. The owners had also hidden details of the locations of illegal mining operations beneath the shaft to avoid discovery. The manager of the mine, Li Guangdou, was alleged to be responsible for the accident. It is not known what measures have been taken against him.
In response to the massive accident in March 2003 at the Mengnanzhuang mine in Shanxi Province which killed 72 miners, (many of whom died after being forced back down gas-filled shafts) the central authorities issued a record fine of 21.18 million Yuan (some 2.55 million US dollars) and ordered the mine to close down immediately. The fine was announced by Deputy Director Wang Dexue of the State Administration of Work Safety at a press conference held by the State Council Information Office. [For details on the accident and interviews with miners ]
According to an announcement on 27 August 2003, the central authorities will allocate a further 2.2 billion Yuan (some 265 million US dollars) to improve safety in coal mines nationwide. In 2002 and 2003, China earmarked a total of 4 billion Yuan for this purpose, according to State Council sources. However, reports suggest that in reality, safety investment in mines has fallen between 3 to 4 billion Yuan short of previously set targets. Indeed in Heilongjiang Province alone, investment in coal mining safety was reported to be some 570 million Yuan short of the planned targets.
It was also announced on 17 June, that a more comprehensive legal system for addressing workplace safety will be put into place over the next two to three years and from 1 July; penalties will apply to people who break work safety laws implemented as part of the Work Safety Law which came into force in November 2002. New rules of mine safety also came into force on 15 August which allow for mine owners to be fined up to 150,000 Yuan and have their mines closed if they are found guilty of breaching the new safety regulations. The SAWS is also planning to produce rules of workplace safety, dealing with reporting systems and emergency procedures and announced that it has established over 290 work safety supervision departments above city level in the past three years, some 20 provincial coal mine safety supervision bureaus and 69 offices in the major coal mines.
At numerous national conferences and tele-conferences held regularly throughout the summer in the aftermath of the accidents, national officials from the State Administration of Work Safety yet again stressed the importance of health and safety in coal mines and urged government officials and entrepreneurs to directly ensure production safety by visiting and checking on conditions, demanding a speedy upgrading of safe production technology. Despite these new announcements, few innovative or concrete ideas and initiatives for achieving improved safety were offered.
Despite the rhetoric and good intentions expressed at the recent meetings, the same measures, the same temporary bans on production and the same type of inspections have been announced each and every year in the past decade or so and similar exhortations made to the local governments to implement existing laws and yet the disastrous situation of safety in Chinas coal mines continues unchanged. While the efforts of Shanxi province, for example, are commended, it should be noted that the most of the new directives remain very similar to those issued in previous years in response to similar accidents. It remains to be seen if some of the new procedures and new regulations (such as the information network and the increased penalties for those responsible officials) will have the necessary impact on the situation and will halt the continual cycle of accidents.
Despite safety checks on mines and the closing down of illegal mines or mines failing safety inspections, many mines simply wait until inspections are finished and the officials leave the area and then they re-open. In many cases, mines are re-opened with the complicity of local officials who have much to gain from the continued production of coal in their area indeed many local governments are unwilling to close down mines in their area as they are heavily dependant on tax revenues created by the mines. In many of the mines investigated by officials, even the most basic of safety measures have not been installed. In some instances mines are operating at a very low profit margin due to the current over-production of coal in China. This adds to the perceived need to extract as much coals as possible as cheaply as possible. In some cases where mines are asked to close down, the owners organize workers to extract the maximum amount of coal by working the mines 24 hours a day before the closure date arrives thus increasing the chances of more accidents.
The lack of rural jobs and the steady encroachment of industry - including coal mines onto farming land have led many rural villagers to turn to mining as way to make a living. With no other livelihood available and with little education or training, many rural workers are willing to work for cash in appalling and unsafe conditions, often assisting coal mine owners in avoiding safety procedures to ensure continued employment. Many have also been willing to work in illegal single shaft mines which operate in isolated areas where there are few chances of being investigated by safety inspection teams. In fact, township and village owned mines are the most dangerous mines operating in China, with over 2,355 fatal accidents occurring in 2002 compared with 485 fatal accidents in major state owned mines. Control over these smaller mines remains in many cases, almost non-existent due to local corruption and paybacks from officials.
In many instances safety systems exist in name only - documents and directives are issued by national levels of government and passed down, but ignored. Meetings at the central and local level are held to discuss safety, but no action is taken. Despite the plethora of regulations, the root problems with the current measures arise both from the top down approach to work safety, and the centralized approach used (as opposed to enforceable and locally suitable measures). Some good regulations exist but are ignored by local officials due to ignorance, official complicity with illegal mine operators, the desire to receive taxes, the inability to properly close down mines and a lack of resources available at the local level to investigate, monitor and enforce penalties.
In addition, regulations are targeted primarily at the owners and managers of the mines as well as safety officials. In the majority of regulations, workers are not targeted and their involvement in work safety is not stressed. Although many newer regulations do push for proper training of workers there is nothing which empowers the workers to demand such training, and instead they are reliant on the mine owners and other officials. Workers, deprived of a trade union to oversee their safety, have little power to ask for training and put forward suggestions on safety in the mines, despite being the ones which are generally the most aware of the dangers and the ones with most to lose.
The Labour Law of China as well as the Work Safety law gives Chinese workers various rights relating to occupational health and safety, including the right to suggest safety procedures, to stop work in unsafe conditions and to ask for inspections. However, in the majority of workplaces, these rights are ignored and often unknown. In the absence of any effective and representative trade union, China Labour Bulletin believes strongly in the need for the creation of worker safety committees as an effective and low tech solution to the current levels of safety in coal mine production.
In fact, on December 12, 2001, China's State Economic and Trade Commission (SETC), with reference to the "ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems" formulated a document entitled "Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems" (hereafter Guidelines). The aim of this document was to;
"Encourage all employees of employing units, especially top level executives, managers, workers and their representatives to adopt rational principles of OSH management and methods in order to uphold and continue to improve effective OSH in China".
The Guidelines asked that "work units shall voluntarily set up and maintain OSH management systems and support employees and their representatives to actively take part in OSH activities. They shall also confirm and guarantee that OSH measures and requests apply not only to their own employees, but also to subcontractors and directly employed temporary workers. Enterprises involved in high risk work along with those employing units that have suffered serious accidents have a special responsibility to set up and maintain OSH management systems".
The Guidelines also stipulated that once enterprises had set up "OSH management systems", they should also establish an "OSH Committee" in which a fair proportion of workers are to take part. The guidelines have now been in existence for almost two years but there has been little reporting on progress towards implementing the recommendations.
Although there are several problems associated with workers occupational health and safety committees (WOC), which include the lack of trained miners, the high turnover in many mines and the risks many miners are willing to take in order to remain employed by a mine (which includes the acceptance of unsafe conditions), it is clear that there is a pressing need for workers to become more involved in the promotion of safety in coal mines as the current ownership of many of Chinas coal mines are unwilling to invest in even basic improvements and local governments are often complicit in allowing the status quo to continue.
For more details on the current laws in China governing occupation work safety and a discussion on some possible solutions, please see The Absence of Rigor and the Failure of Implementation and CLBs Proposals to improve Occupation Health and Safety in China. For more details on China's coal mine accidents please click here.
6 September 2003