Daniel Bardsley, Foreign Correspondent
23 November 2010
BEIJING. All 29 people trapped in a flooded coal mine in China's south-western Sichuan province were brought to safety yesterday, a happy outcome amid numerous fatal incidents in the country's mining industry.
Crowds applauded as the workers were pulled to safety, echoing scenes of jubilation in Chile last month when 33 miners were rescued after being trapped for more than two months.
A total of 35 miners were underground at the Sichuan pit, near the city of Nejiang, when an explosion on Sunday morning flooded the mine. Thirteen escaped, but seven who entered on a rescue mission became trapped themselves.
After floodwaters were pumped out, another rescue team entered the mine yesterday to bring out those trapped, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Pictures showed those brought to safety in quilts and with their eyes covered to protect them from the sunlight after a day underground.
When the accident happened, the mine was being extended to increase capacity from 50,000 tonnes to 60,000 tonnes, according to local news reports, part of continued efforts to boost capacity to help satisfy China's heavy demand for coal. China relies on coal for 70 per cent of its energy needs.
China's coal-mining industry is both the largest in the world, employing seven million, and also the most deadly, with 2,631 killed last year, according to official statistics. This figure represents 80 per cent of the world's total mining deaths.
Last year's death toll was significantly better than in previous years, with fatalities having fallen each year since 2003, when they peaked at 7,200. Campaigners however believe the actual death toll could be higher, as many accidents are hushed up. Estimates suggest, per unit of coal extracted, China's coal mining industry is 37 times more dangerous than the United States' operations.
The situation remains "very challenging", according to Zhu Changyou, a programme officer for workplace safety at the International Labour Organisation in Beijing.
While some larger, state-run mines were well run with "good practice in terms of safety culture", Mr Zhu said, adding that the situation could be different at smaller operations.
He said the central government was committed to improving mining safety and had introduced a series of safety measures, among them a requirement for managers to go underground themselves.
"In my opinion, it's on track to improve the situation," Mr Zhu said.
"Really it takes time to see concrete results and build a safety culture. You cannot raise the level of safety culture overnight."
Other initiatives include a requirement for coal mines to fit emergency shelters by June 2013, with large state mines expected to introduce them a year earlier. Thousands of smaller mines have been shut by the authorities.
The Hong Kong-based pressure group China Labour Bulletin acknowledged the "determined effort" of the central authorities, said its spokesman, Geoffrey Crothall. However, he said accident rates this year indicated safety improvements had reached a plateau.
"In terms of really improving safety, they are still faced with the problem that local government officials who are supposed to enforce coal mine safety standards are all too often in collusion with the mine owners they are supposed to be policing," he said.
A court case last week illustrated the corruption problem. Wang Xiping, a former deputy director of coal mine safety in Chongqing, was jailed for life for accepting 9 million yuan (Dh4.98m) in bribes from coal mine owners.
Two other officials, one a policeman, were given 15 years for accepting bribes.
Many miners are poorly paid migrants on short-term contracts with minimal safety training and are paid according to their output, meaning "even the coal miners themselves are not interested in their safety", according to Mr Crothall.
"The coal mining industry is still fixated on boosting productivity and safety is always secondary," he said.
"Until that situation changes - it really is the major concern - and Chinese coal mines develop a culture of safety, I don't see how things are going to improve."