China cites rise in coal deaths despite drive to cut output

While the country admitted the number of deaths increased from major coal mine accidents, state figures conflict with independent media and research reports.

In a rare admission, China has acknowledged an increase in deaths from major coal mine accidents as the government presses its campaign to cut production overcapacity in the industry.

On July 28, a top safety official singled out the coal industry while reporting an overall drop in production accidents during the first half of the year, the official Xinhua news agency said.

According to Yang Huanning, director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), a total of 23,534 production accidents claimed 14,136 lives during the period, down 8.8 per cent and 5.3 per cent from a year earlier, respectively.

But Yang told a Beijing press conference that coal was the exception in “a generally stable work safety situation.”

Sixty-four workers had died in five major coal accidents through June compared with 21 deaths in one accident a year before, Yang said.

Across all industries tracked by SAWS, 198 deaths occurred in 15 major accidents, representing reductions of 23.9 and 25 per cent, Xinhua reported.

Yang cited neglect of equipment maintenance by struggling coal mines as one likely cause of major accidents. Mines slated for closure had also raised risks by prolonging production due to recent price hikes for coal, he said.

Sixty-four workers had died in five major coal accidents through June compared with 21 deaths in one accident a year before.

Yang Huanning, director, State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS)

Recent death toll improvements

The comments were unusual on several counts, most notably because China has previously reported dramatic improvements in coal mine death tolls in recent years.

In 2014, the latest year for which state media have reported complete numbers, coal mine fatalities totaled 931, dropping below 1,000 per year for the first time.

In 1996-2000, the annual death toll averaged 7,619, an astonishing rate of over 20 per day, according to previous official reports on one of the world’s most dangerous industries.

China’s progress in promoting safety and closing its most treacherous small mines has been impressive, considering the country’s increase in coal output as fatalities declined.

In 1990, the ratio of deaths per million metric tons of coal mined stood at 6.1, a 2004 study at Chinese University of Hong Kong found. In 2014, the ratio fell to 0.24, RFA calculated from official reports.

But the official reports have grown sketchy and sporadic, suggesting that the most recent tally of “major” accidents was intended to make a point.

The major accident category represents only a fraction of China’s coal mining deaths, but comprehensive figures have not been publicised, making it unclear whether total fatalities went up or down.

SAWS defines major accidents as those that kill over 10 people, injure over 50 or result in direct economic losses over 50 million yuan (U.S. $7.5 million), Xinhua said.

Fragmentary figures

But trying to construct complete figures from official reports of SAWS statements is difficult.

On April 25, the agency said coal mine accidents in the first quarter dropped 36.2 per cent from a year earlier, while the death toll had decreased by 4.7 per cent.

But 10 days later, SAWS said that coal accidents in the four-month period through April rose 40 per cent, Xinhua reported.

State media reports of accidents during the period do not account for the discrepancy, suggesting that the sudden increase may be only for accidents classified as major.

Speaking at the SAWS press conference, a coal safety official cited 205 deaths from all coal accidents during the six-month period, an increase from 116 in the year-earlier period, according to a transcript.

But neither figure appears to correlate with the death rates reported for 2014 or the first quarter of this year.

Last December, Xinhua reported a 68-per cent drop in deaths from major coal accidents for an 11-month period of 2015 without citing a figure for all accidents.

Copyright ©, 1998-2014, RFA. Used with permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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