By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
25 October 2010
FANGSHAN, Beijing — A prototype of the "Phoenix" capsule that rescued 33 miners in Chile sits at the Chile Pavilion at Shanghai's World Expo — a symbol of an outcome that happens all too infrequently in China.
As the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, China suffers the highest absolute number of coal mining-related deaths. In 2009, coal mine accidents killed 2,631, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. In the USA, coal mining fatalities totaled a record-low 18 in 2009, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In the latest accident, 37 miners were entombed in Yuzhou City in central Henan province on Oct. 16 following a gas explosion. Beijing's top mine-safety official Luo Lin last week promised change and agreed to install more underground shelters and other emergency facilities, the China News Service reported.
"I feel deeply grieved and very angry whenever I see a tragedy like Henan," says Fang Xinqiu, on faculty at the China University of Mining and Technology. "The mine bosses did not follow the rules and put profits before people."
New safety rules in place
China has taken some actions in recent weeks. The coal mine operators, Pingyu Coal and Electric Co., failed to learn from a 2008 blast that killed 23 miners in the same pit, China's State Administration of Work Safety said last week. The agency said all production must be halted at mines that cannot prevent gas blasts, fires and flooding.
A rule came into force this month ordering mine bosses to go down into pits with miners, a dramatic bid to force better implementation of safety measures.
Some analysts doubt the impact of Beijing's actions.
"Every time there's a disaster, the central government puts out a new directive, but it's a limited, piecemeal approach," says Geoffrey Crothall, director of communications at China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based non-profit that lobbies for workers' rights.
At the local level, safety initiatives are often ignored or blocked while many fatal accidents are covered up, Crothall says. The Pingyu mine had shelter areas, which have been created in some mines — but one of the 239 miners to escape told the Beijing News these areas were filled with debris.
China must "develop a long-term culture of safety," by creating "a workforce that is stable, well-trained and well-paid, that understands the risks involved and can monitor the dangers to ensure the safety of their colleagues and the mine itself," Crothall says.
'Working secretly at night'
Gas outbursts are common and geological conditions "very challenging," says Tony Szwilski, a mine safety expert at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., who has worked in China.
Last week a Chinese delegation of mine-safety officials and executives visited Marshall to learn about new technology, including simulated underground explosions.
"All of the safest coal, nearest the surface, was mined a long time ago, so all mines, in China and the U.S., are going deeper," he says. "Everybody needs to up the ante in mine safety and training."
In mountainous Fangshan, Zhao Congyun, 45, has mined coal since 2004 with minimal safety measures and hardly any training, he says.
"Although the mining conditions were bad, I could earn $750 a month," says Zhao, 45, of pay that is much more than his farming income in southwestern Sichuan province.
Zhao has survived two rockfalls in the past six years. He discovered last year that his trouble breathing was the chronic lung disease called miner's phthisis. This June, municipal officials shut down the mine where Zhao worked. Now he and more than 200 other unemployed miners are petitioning the government to recognize their work injuries.
"If I wasn't ill, I would go back down the mine again," Zhao says.
Some miners already have. Despite the government ban, small, private mines, long considered the most deadly source of mining accidents, still operate illegally in Fangshan district, says coal seller Zhang Weihui, 39.
"You can see the lights of miners working secretly at night," he says. "The government can never shut down all the private mines."
To reduce the human costs, researcher Fang Xinqiu is among Chinese scientists working on automated mining methods, such as robots or mining cars controlled from the surface. Pilot projects underway in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi province have shown that a large mine can reduce its workforce from more than 1,000 to under 100 miners, Fang says.
"In the past, investment in mine safety in China has been quite small, or did not reach the right place," says Fang, who recalls marveling at advanced U.S. safety equipment, and high miners' salaries, during a 2007 visit to Minnesota. "Now the situation is improving. The death rate can never be zero, but it will reduce further from the current level."
China's mining problems "reflect a general lack of safety awareness in factories throughout the country," Crothall says. "Employers can get away with not protecting their workforce as the government has allowed employers to set pay and working conditions regardless of the laws that the government has put on the statute books," he says.
Still Crothall is pleased by China's strong public response to the Chile rescue. "This may have a galvanizing effect to build the culture of safety that China so badly needs," he says.