Safety Standards in Chinese Mines? What are the International Standards?

21 December 2004
The safety standards for China’s coalmines are clearly set forth in a set of regulations formulated by the State Administration of Work Safety a few years ago. However, mine owners and officials often simply ignore these regulations.

In 2003, according to the government, China’s accident-plagued coalmines accounted for 80 percent of the world’s coal mining deaths while producing 35 percent of its coal.

“The frequency of coal mine accidents in China is still very high,” said Wang Xianzheng, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, admitting that working conditions for China's coal miners needed to be improved. “China lags far behind developed countries in coal mine safety,” he said.

Mine safety has been a prominent issue for President Hu Jintao, who has called on government officials to do a better job of protecting public safety.

A nation-wide safety campaign is said to have reduced the casualty rate this year, but coalmine accidents have still caused 5,286 deaths from January to November this year, according to figures from the State Administration of Work Safety. In 2003, it said coalmine accidents killed 6,702 people. But in June 2004, China Labour Bulletin was unofficially told by a Chinese government source in Europe that the real figure could be "at least 20,000 a year," since many deaths are covered up or not recorded.

Most accidents occur in small, sometimes illegally run mines and are often the result of indifference to safety rules and a lack of the equipment required to extract gas seeping from coal beds. These illegally run mines exist because China is facing increasing demand for electricity due to its economic growth, which is pushing up the price of coal.

The average Chinese miner produces 321 tonnes of coal per year — just 2.2 per cent of a U.S. miner's output, according to Xinhua. The official news agency also reported that the fatality rate among Chinese miners, measured per 100 tonnes of coal produced, was 100 times that of U.S. miners. According to Mines and Communities (a U.K.-based monitoring group), however: "In the first six months of 2002 alone, as coal output was further accelerated, the official death rate rose to almost four thousand (3,393),
and by the year-end the toll was 6,995 killed in explosions, roof collapses and floods. (By comparison, 27 American coal miners lost their lives the same year)." These latter figures indicate that in 2002, at least, Chinese miners were more than 250 times more likely to die at work than their American counterparts.[See:]

In November, China’s “black lung” therapy foundation launched a public welfare project for coal miners, according to Xinhua. Miners, who are most vulnerable to the disease, will be able to receive prompt treatment, sources in the foundation were reported as saying. The foundation was established in October 2003.

Official statistics show that at least 5,000 people die of “black lung,” or pneumoconiosis, each year. The disease is caused by inhaling coal dust in underground mines and is the most serious occupational disease among miners. The symptoms are acute chest pains, bad cough and colds, with the worst cases resulting in respiratory failure.

Experts suggest that lavage treatment is proven to be safe and effective in removing dust from lungs and restoring lung function, but at least 200,000 “black lung” patients in China cannot afford this treatment, according to statistics from the foundation.

The Xinhua report said the foundation has started raising funds in China and abroad, hoping to offer free treatment to poor patients at a sanitarium for miners in Beidaihe in Hebei Province. It said six mining conglomerates based in Shanxi, Henan and Anhui Provinces have each promised to donate 5 million Yuan to the foundation.

Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that by the end of 2002 (the most recent data available) the number of “black lung” patients in China had topped 580,000, of which 46 percent came from the coal mining industry. The ministry estimated that the figure has been increasing by at least 10,000 each year, causing a direct economic loss of 8 billion Yuan.

Occupational safety regulations in China

Labour law and work safety regulations in China do guarantee workers the right to a safe working environment, but many mine owners simply ignore them. China Labour Bulletin believes that unless workers are allowed to set up independent trade unions and worker safety committees, the health and safety of workers, in particular those working in high-risk industries such as coal mines, cannot be effectively protected.

In response to the seemingly endless succession of major coal mining disasters in China, on 9 December, the State Administration for Work Safety and the State Coal Mining Safety Supervisory Bureau jointly issued a 131-page document – “Rules and Procedures on Coal Mining Safety” – comprising no fewer than 751 Articles. These new regulations will come into force on 1 January 2005, and no doubt will be an important contribution to the fight against continuing needless deaths among Chinese coalminers. In CLB’s view, however, a far more urgent need is for the Chinese government to begin taking determined steps actually to implement and enforce the country’s existing laws and regulations on workplace safety. In the absence of such a high-level effort and commitment, no amount of fresh regulations in this area will suffice to halt the scandalous continuing death toll in the country’s mining industry.

On 12 December 2001, the 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”. The aim of the document was “to encourage all employees of employing units, especially top level executives, managers, workers and their representatives, to adopt rational principles and methods of OSH management in order to uphold and continue to improve effective OSH in China”.

The Guidelines also specify 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 gurantee 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 require that once enterprises have set up “OSH management systems,” they should establish an “OSH Committee” in which a fair proportion of workers are included. The guidelines have been in place for almost three years now, but there is little evidence of the recommendations being implemented.

The “Regulations on Safety Inspection in Coal Mines” was introduced by the State Administration of Work Safety on 1 December 2000. It contains 50 articles stipulating what each level of government in China should do to ensure safe working conditions in coalmines in their respective jurisdiction In the case of an accident, non-compliant mine owners are liable to a fine of up to 150,000 Yuan, suspension of operation and criminal prosecution.

In addition, a Xinhua report on 20 December said that mine owners in Shanxi Province would henceforth be required to pay 200,000 Yuan in compensation to the bereaved families of each miner killed at work. This sum is three times the average compensation amount that has hitherto been paid in Shanxi -- a major coal producing province in China. The report said the new rule was meant to "sound an alarm" among mine owners and "discourage them from reaping undeserved profits at the cost of the miners' personal safety."

The new compensation standard reportedly has already been applied to a gas explosion accident at Daxian Sankeng Colliery in Nanlou Town, Yuxian, in Yangquan City, Shanxi Province, on 9 December that killed 33 miners. According to Xinhua, the owners of the Daxian Sankeng Colliery have paid out 6.6 million Yuan to the families of the dead.

Government initiative to reduce number of small mines

On 2 December, the National Development and Reform Commission announced plans to restructure the coal industry in China by grouping 28,000 mines into 13 clusters to allow more efficient supply and safety management. The central government agency said some large state-owned coal mines would be encouraged to merge or acquire smaller mines, which are where most of the serious accidents occur. Government statistics show that 24,000 of China’s 28,000 coal mines are small operations. Developing coal industry syndicates was the ultimate solution to easing coal shortage, the commission said. Power shortages have undermined development in some areas in China, with prices for electricity and coal rocketing.

Dou Qingfeng, president of the China Coal Information Institute was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying: “More than 60 percent of China’s energy demands depend on coal supply and the situation will not change much over the next 20 or 30 years. It is necessary to develop several coal industry syndicates.” He added that many small coal mines were closely connected with local governments, while in some areas, local governments were financially dependent on the mines.

A coal industry expert was quoted as saying: “More than 90 percent of small coal mines should be shut down for safety reasons, as their poor facilities cannot meet safety standards.”
Demand for coal, which accounts for 67 percent of China's power needs, surged as the economy expanded 9.5 percent in the first nine months amid a coal-transportation bottleneck and poor rail networks, Bloomberg reported.
In late October, Beijing City government’s Urban Development Committee also revealed that rural coalmines will be faded out by 2010.

“Beijing will impose restrictions on coal exploitation in the future,” Chen Huaiwei, a member of the Urban Development Committee, said, adding: “We don’t want an increase in the number of small coalmines in the city.”

According to the new plan, total annual production will be lower than 9 million tons by 2007, and the city will have less than 60 small mines. By 2010, all small mines in Beijing will be closed down and mining companies will be encouraged to move elsewhere. Beijing now has 213 coal mines providing an annual production of 16 million tons of coal, 50 percent of which comes from small mines.

The government actually issued a notice to eliminate small coalmines across the country three years ago. In June 2001, the State Council issued an urgent circular demanding that all state-owned small coalmines be shut immediately and all township coalmines should suspend operation, in an attempt to curb the recurrence of accidents. Safety in coalmines will remain a problem unless miners receive appropriate training, are able to establish independent trade unions, elect their own trade union leaders and establish worker safety committees.

International standards on Coalmine Safety and Health

A series of International conventions, primarily those adopted by the International Labour Organization, provide workers with the right to participate in workplace safety inspection and investigations. According to Article 13 of the Safety and Health in Mines Convention 1995 adopted by the International Labour Organization on 22 June 1995, workers in mines, in accordance to national laws and regulations, shall have the following rights:

(a) to report accidents, dangerous occurrences and hazards to the employer and to the competent authority;

(b) to request and obtain, where there is cause for concern on safety and health grounds, inspections and investigations to be conducted by the employer and the competent authority;

(c) to know and be informed of workplace hazards that may affect their safety or health;

(d) to obtain information relevant to their safety or health, held by the employer or the competent authority;

(e) to remove themselves from any location at the mine when circumstances arise which appear, with reasonable justification, to pose a serious danger to their safety or health; and

(f) to collectively select safety and health representatives.

The Convention also stipulates that safety and health representatives, in accordance with national laws, shall have the following rights:

(a) to represent workers on all aspects of workplace safety and health;

(b) to:

(i) participate in inspections and investigations conducted by the employer and by the competent authority at the workplace;

(ii) monitor and investigate safety and health matters;

(c) to have recourse to advisers and independent experts;

(d) to consult with the employer in a timely fashion on safety and health matters, including policies and procedures;

(e) to consult with the competent authority;

(f) to receive, relevant to the area for which they have been selected, notice of accidents and dangerous occurrences.

The Convention says the exercise of the rights listed above shall be specified:

(a) by national laws and regulations;

(b) through consultations between employers and workers and their representatives.

The essence of the convention is that workers should be given the opportunity to participate in the investigation process and monitoring of work safety – but all these standards are entirely absent in Chinese mines. Far from being consulted on work safety issues, miners in China are regarded by mine owners and mining officials simply as the means to higher production. As a result, when accidents happen, the miners turn out to have dug their own graves.

As China has still not ratified the ILO Convention on Safety and Health in Mines, China Labour Bulletin is calling on the international labour community to demand that China ratify and comply with the standards adopted in this convention and two fundamental ILO conventions: Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (1948), and Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (1949).

China Labour Bulletin believes that Chinese miners’ interests would be far better protected if the Chinese government ratified and abided by these key international conventions. If workers had been allowed to establish independent trade unions, set up occupational health and safety committees to monitor the safety standards of their workplaces and to provide workers with regular health checkups, serious accidents such as the Chenjiashan Coalmine and Daping Coalmine explosions would almost certainly have been avoided.

Sources: China Labour Bulletin, Xinhua, Associated Press, Beijing Youth Daily, State Administration of Work Safety, International Labour Organization, Bloomberg, South China Morning Post

21 December 2004

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