Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Sad Week in China's Coal Mines

A Sad Week Indeed

I had much reason to be happy when I saw an article in the China Daily June 28th on the YTD results concerning the incidence of coal mine accidents and fatalities in China. 

For the period, accidents reported officially, stood at 512, down 21.25% on the corresponding period in 2010. More heartening was that fatalities were down 35% with only 807 deaths.

The full year figure for fatalities in 2010 was 2423 and, as you will see from the following table, deaths in the coal mining industry in China have fallen considerably since their high of 6,995 in 2002 which, coincidentally, was when I first started taking an interest in the issue.

Before going on I will make the point that these are official figures, that is, figures released by the Chinese Government of reported accidents and deaths. They are most definitely not the real figures. For a variety of reasons it is most likely that all the figures quoted above for accident numbers and fatalities can be increased by a factor of four. In 2002, for example, estimated deaths by informed commentators and human rights organisations were placed around the 20-25,000 mark.

The reasons for this under reporting are numerous and whilst the Chinese Government knows this to be the case in it's defence it can only publicise what is reported to the relevant local officials and, maybe then, upwards to the Central Government. One of the problems is in the structure of the industry which is made up of four elements.

The industry consists of four types of mines namely:
  • National Strategic Mines (NSM's) Nationally run companies numbering some 268 and accounting for 51% of production.
  • Provincial National Mines (PNM's)  owned by provincial governments  numbering some 4,000 mines and producing 13% of production.
  • Township Mines (TM's) numbering 12,000 approximately and owned by local governments and private organisations.
  • Illegal operations, statistics unknown.

NSM's and PNM's are well regulated and all statistics emanating from them can be relied upon. As well, by world standards, they are reasonably safe.

The problem regarding reporting arises from TM's and illegal operations, where by virtue of their very illegality and/or the corruption of officials, greatly exacerbate problems in gathering correct statistics. There are many stories of cover ups including instances of faked death certificates. It is in these two categories that the most fatalities and accidents occur, reported on not reported.

Back however to the current situation unfolding.

My delight over the press release on June 28 was shattered when, within days of my 'tweeting" these very encouraging results, news came to hand of what was to be the first of five accidents to occur in the following five days. Accidents in Guangxi, Guizhou, Shanxi, Shandong and Xinjiang ensued claiming 8 lives and, till now, sees 70 miners still trapped with little likelihood of rescue. A horrific toll by any one's standards.

The question most people will have is why? The answer to that question is easy, the solution is not.

  • Firstly, it is the very nature of coal mining operations in China. Due to terrain, and, location of the veins, coal mining is mostly underground tunneling unlike in the US and Australia, the other major coal mining nations, where most mining is open cut and surface operations. Underground mining is, and will always be, inherently more dangerous.
  • Secondly, weather considerations. Underground mining in areas prone to considerable rainfall are always in danger from subsidence and landslides.This can be seen in three of the five accidents we now look at.
  • Thirdly, the industry has five million workers and hundreds of thousand mines legal and illegal, almost impossible to supervise from an OH&S standpoint.
  • Fourthly, most of the workers in the non NSM's are poorly educated migrant workers who lack technical skills and safety awareness.
  • Fifthly, small scale operations lacking good management and equipment.
  • And, lastly, lack of organised labour unions to safeguard workers rights.

What then is the solution? Well as can be seen from the above figures significant inroads have been made over the last decade. The Central Government has worked hard to reduce accidents and fatalities and is succeeding. Unfortunately, the Chinese political system is such that directives from the Central Government can be delayed in their implementation or ignored totally depending on how deep 'lower down' officials hands are in other people's pockets.

We will never see fatality rates as low as the US or Australia that is a given, however they can be further reduced.

  1. Corruption is the most significant factor in the number of fatalities. If illegal mines are closed down, if safety standards are policed and enforced we will see strikingly marked improvements in mine safety.
  2. More significant legal and financial penalties need to be placed on owners of legal mines for accidents and deaths.
  3. Better OH&S training and oversight of mine managers. You just do not send miners down a shaft after a week of torrential rains,
  4. Reduced working hours. I have not got the statistics at hand just now but my gut feeling tells me that most accidents occur later in the week and on weekends when extreme tiredness must be setting in and miners let their guard down on safety.
  5. The allowing of organised labour movements. Though, with the Chinese penchant for Guanxi, this wish may be a pipe dream and, at the very best, a long way off.
I believe, as I am sure we all do, that regardless of how dangerous our jobs are that we have a reasonable expectation that when we kiss our loved ones good bye in the morning that we can kiss them hello in the night.

It is too easy to just pass over these incidents and reports. If it happened in a western mine would we be so blase? I think not. So if you are a blogger blog on the issue if your a tweeter tweet and retreat others. It is the very least we owe these poor people and their families.

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