China Cuts Coal Mine Deaths, But Count in Doubt – by Michael Lelyveld (Radio Free Asia – March 16, 2015)

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China has announced continuing progress in reducing coal mine fatalities, although doubts remain about death counts and cover-ups in one of the most dangerous industries in the world.

On March 10, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) told a Beijing press conference that coal mine accidents claimed 931 lives last year, as the death toll dropped below 1,000 for the first time.

“The situation has been greatly improved,” said the SAWS director, Yang Dongliang, according to Agence France-Presse. Speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative sessions, Yang mixed praise for safety advances with a promise that the agency was determined to do more.

The most recent fatality figure represented an 86.7 percent decline from the toll of some 7,000 in 2002, the official Xinhua news agency reported. “The nation is still confronted with grave and complicated challenges in coal mine work safety, as the authorities aim to achieve a zero-death target,” Yang said.

There seems little doubt that China has made major steps forward in lowering the casualty count in an industry that accounts for half the world’s coal output.

In 1996-2000, deaths in coal mines averaged 7,619 annually, or over 20 per day, about eight times more than last year, as cited in previous official reports.

Dramatic cuts in reported deaths

Government efforts to tighten safety rules and close thousands of smaller, more dangerous mines have led to dramatic cuts in official death counts and fatality rates over the years.

In 1990, the ratio of deaths per million tons of coal production stood at 6.1, according to a 2004 study by Wang Shaoguang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. That rate was 24 times higher than that calculated from earlier SAWS data for last year.

Safety campaigns, gas monitoring, mine closures and consolidations have produced more rapid results in recent years, based on government reports.

In 2005, for example, China mined 2.1 billion tons of coal and recorded 5,986 deaths.

By that reckoning, the death toll has dropped 84 percent, while production has grown by 84 percent In the course of the past decade.

But the 2014 figures appear inconsistent with the official reports that accidental deaths declined 14.3 percent from a year earlier, when 1,049 miners were listed as killed or missing.

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