The number of coal mine accidents and their subsequent death toll decreased in China in 2003. But the sobering reality of continued frequent accidents permits no optimism on workplace safety.
Statistics from the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) indicate that more than 2,110 people lost their lives in 596 gas explosions in coal mines in China last year. The death toll and number of explosions dropped by 7.4 percent and 6.6 percent respectively over the previous year.
That might come as a surprise when measured against most people's concern about the country's overall work safety situation.
Intense media coverage of coal mine accidents in recent years has driven home to the masses the gravity of the country's workplace safety situation, especially in the mining sector.
And the fatal gas field blowout last month in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality which claimed 243 lives, the worst of its kind in China, has brought the public's impression of the country's work safety to its lowest point.
Coal mine accidents still account for about 40 percent of the nation's total number of industrial accidents. Worse, work safety awareness has yet to take root in Chinese enterprises.
The current decrease in the number of coal mine accidents, to a large extent, should be attributed to the country's campaign to tighten control of work safety in coal mines, especially those small-sized ones which make up 90 percent of the country's total.
For small mines, it is one thing to stop dangerous production during the national campaign on work safety, it is another thing to make work safety investment an indispensable part of their cost.
The improved behavior of small coal mines on work safety should thus not be taken for granted. Continuous supervision is still called for to further reduce accidents.
On the other hand, the performance of large state-owned coal mines remains unsatisfactory. Against the overall improvement of the sector's work safety record, the number of serious accidents and the death toll in key state-owned coal mines climbed by 7.4 percent and 9.4 percent, according to figures released by the SAWS.
Criticism used to be focused on private owners of small mines who tried to maximize profits at the cost of workplace safety. If not a similar lack of work safety awareness, lax safety management in large State coal mines is now being exposed.
Admittedly, it will be much more difficult to take drastic measures against these major coal mines since reduction in their output can seriously impede growth of the country's energy supply.
Yet, the China National Petroleum Corporation recently carried out an in-house security inspection after one of its subordinates caused the Chongqing gas field tragedy.
The bitter lesson learned by this oil giant should be heeded by all coal mines: ignoring work safety will cost more.
(China Daily January 16, 2004)