China’s main safety watchdog, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), has a list of recent major coal mine accidents on its website. Last year, it recorded 11 major accidents (those with ten or more deaths) compared with 15 major accidents in 2012. This year, so far, the page is empty.
This, of course, does not mean there have not been any accidents or deaths in China’s coal mines this year: Just last week, four miners died and another four were injured in a gas explosion at a mine in the south-western province of Yunnan on 31 March.
But overall, accident and death rates in China’s coal mines continue to fall. Last year, SAWS reported a total of 589 accidents and 1,049 deaths, both figures down 24 percent compared with 2012. However, this does not necessarily mean that China’s coal mines are getting safer. At the same time that accident rates were falling, coal production and consumption growth rates in China were slowing down.
The China National Coal Association (CNCA) reported in January that coal production increased slightly to 3.7 billion tonnes in 2013, while consumption stood at 3.61 billion tonnes, 2.6 percent higher than 2012. Coal inventory edged up 700,000 tonnes to 84 million tonnes and net imports totalled 320 million tonnes, up 40 million tonnes from 2012.
The CNCA noted that many enterprises were battling increased costs and reduced profits throughout 2013. And this year, it seems that the situation is getting even worse. Reuters reported on 2 April that coal prices in China are now at a six-year low, forced down by weak demand, slowing economic growth and cheaper foreign imports. In the once booming mining district of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, for example, stockpiles are high and many of the smaller private mines have already closed and many more could follow if prices drop further.
A worker carries a sack of coal at a small mine in Shanxi province on Nov. 29, 2006. (Peter Parks / AFP)
When demand for coal is low, there is less pressure on the workforce and production is more likely to remain within safe limits. That all changes however when demand increases, prices rise and the opportunity to make a quick profit reappears. Managers will increase production quotas, force miners to work longer hours and open up new mineshafts without first undergoing the necessary safety procedures.
When the price of coal goes up, mine owners will often reopen previously unprofitable mines or secretly start up those that had been closed down by the local authorities because of safety violations. This is precisely what happened in the last major accident in China on 14 December 2013 when a gas explosion at the Baiyanggou coal mine in Xinjiang killed 22 people. The mine, located about 100 kilometres west of the capital Urumqi, had been closed by the authorities in June for safety violations but had opened again before all the problems had been fixed, SAWS said after the explosion.
We have seen time again in China that accidents occur most often in coal mines that recklessly expand production or blatantly flout safety regulations in a bid to make a quick buck. In one of the most notorious accidents in recent years, the flooding of the Wangjialing Mine on 28 March 2010, which killed 38 miners, investigators found that the cause of the accident was the “failure of the construction team digging a new ventilation tunnel to ascertain the condition of an adjacent disused mine reservoir,” which was subsequently breached, and the “failure of the duty managers to take timely and decisive measures to evacuate workers underground once the breach was discovered.” A court in Shanxi later sentenced nine people to jail for their role in the disaster.
In the Hegang tragedy that killed 108 people in a gas explosion on 21 November 2009, an investigation by the Southern Weekend newspaper found that management had a whole 43 minutes to evacuate the mine after the gas was detected but failed to do so because, in their desire for profit, many of the mine’s safety mechanisms and procedures had been closed down or abandoned. Southern Weekend ended its report by noting that:
Two days after the disaster, the temperature in Hegang dropped to -23 degrees. Snow fell lightly on the hills around the mine’s search and rescue area. The next morning, the news came in that coal’s domestic price had hit a new high at 670 yuan per tonne.
There is little evidence that there has been a fundamental change in the profit-centred approach of China’s mining companies since the Hegang tragedy five years ago. However, the consolidation and possible contraction of coal mining in China does give the government an opportunity to exert a firmer regulatory grip over the industry, ensure that safety standards are enforced in working mines, and prevent disused mines from re-opening without proper authorization or safety checks.
With a more stable mining industry, there is also the opportunity for miners to get proper safety training and organize workers’ committees that can monitor and enforce safety mechanisms and procedures in the mine. As China Labour Bulletin has pointed out on numerous occasions, the most effective way to promote safety in mines is ensure that the workers, the people with the most to gain and most to lose, are an integral part of the safety process. The workers and their trade union, moreover, must have the right and the authority to ensure that all legal safety standards and practices are adhered to and to demand a halt in production in the face of imminent danger. We are currently a long way from that point but eventually China’s miners will demand and acquire the right to a working environment where “safety first” is not just a slogan but the reality.