The death toll from an explosion at a coal mine outside the city of Panzhihua in Sichuan province, China on Aug. 29 rose to 45. Along with two other deadly accidents in Chinese coal mines since Aug. 13, the total number of deaths in China climbed to 76, according to reports by the State Administration of Work Safety.
China is the world's largest miner and consumer of coal, and has long had the deadliest mines. This partly reflects the difficulty of regulating 12,000 mines, and the fact that its coal veins are so deep underground.
Growing social awareness in China of workplace safety, and of the environment, represents an added political challenge to the ruling Communist Party, which faces increasingly loud public demands to deliver more than economic growth, The Wall Street Journal reported.
State-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary headlined “Multiple accidents test CPC's governability” that 75,572 people lost their lives as a result of accidents last year. It said, “Every man-made accident, be it the collapse of a bridge [last] month or the bullet train collision last year—stems from something, and many suspect that dereliction of duty, a lack of proper supervision, abuse of power or corruption could be behind these accidents.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the coal industry in China is improving, analysts said. They credit continued focus on safety in resource-rich areas like Shanxi province for reducing mining’s death toll in China to around 2,000 in 2011 from 3,786 in 2007 and nearly 7,000 in 2002, according to figures from Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
The latest accidents all occurred at relatively small pits, operated by owners who cater to China’s giant appetite to fuel power plants and steel mills, but are Beijing’s biggest challenges in enforcing safety rules. Analysts said these facilities often hire untrained labor and pay based on tonnage, leading to frequent deadly accidents.
China’s 3.52 Gt (3.8 billion st) of output last year was almost half of the global total 7.695 Gt (8.48 billion st), and 3.5 times that of the next biggest coal producer, the U.S., according to the BP Statistics Review of World Energy, encouraged by world prices that more than tripled in a decade.
The economic slowdown in China this year isn't seen significantly slowing its coal production, according to Barclays, which forecasts a 5.9 percent rise in output in 2012 to 3.6 Gt (4 billion st).
China’s top eight mining groups accounted for only around 20 percent of national coal output in 2010, according to Xu Yi-chong, a professor of Australia’s Griffith University in Brisbane, whereas in the U.S. just three companies produced 70 percent.
“This is the main problem,” said Ms. Xu. She said small coal mines’ safety and labor standards tend to be very low, while large mine owners tend to be more responsible. Large, government-run coal producers in China recorded a fatality rate of 0.28 per million metric tons mined in 2010 while small operations killed five times as many people, or 1.4 per ton. She says China's national average in 2010 was 0.75 deaths per million tons, down sharply from 7.6 deaths per million during the mid-1980s.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, 17 people died in U.S. coal-mining accidents last year. A 13th death in 2012 occurred on July 31 when a 43-year-old was crushed repairing a machine underground in West Virginia.