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Improve Miners' Safety
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The winter breeze is far less cold than the shiver that passes down the spine of a miner, right before he's killed down a coal shaft as he digs fuel for boilers to heat up thousands of homes.

Three separate colliery blasts in two days claimed 78 lives and six coal-mine accidents in the country's biggest coal producer Shanxi Province killed more than 100 miners in just a month.

Outrage is far from enough to describe what we feel about the coal pit owners' disregard for the lives of miners when it has been found that almost all disasters could have been avoided had the owners seriously observed safety rules and local governments performed their duties to shut down the substandard ones.

All three coal mines that had gas blasts had expired production permits. The one in the city of Qujing, in southwest China's Yunnan Province, was among those published in the major papers as being closed. But the local government substituted a smaller mine for this one and was found to have played such games with more than 20 coal mines.

In the nationwide coal mining safety overhaul last year, nearly 5,000 officials at various levels were said to have withdrawn their stakes of nearly 500 million yuan (US$63 million) from private coal mines.

Cutting the connections between government officials and private coal pit owners was believed to be a way to get rid of the umbrellas sheltering illegal mining activities, and thus reduce the number of disastrous accidents.

The slack management and behind-the-scenes collaboration between some local civil servants and coal pit owners exposed by the most recent frequent disastrous blasts demonstrated the complicated scenario in this sector.

The description by Li Yizhong, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, that "grass-roots government officials would work out schemes to get around the policies of the higher authorities" may scratch where it indeed itches.

It is quite probable that some officials still maintain connections with mine owners even after the campaign forcing them to withdraw their interest.

Whatever the situation, it is no easy job to stop local officials from getting involved in coal production, and neither is it enough to solve this problem using this approach only.

Probably, union-like organizations among coal miners may constitute another important force to stop pit owners and their collaborators from going too far in compromising safety rules.

With mining trade unions, a supervision mechanism operated by the watchdog and government policy to prohibit officials from getting involved, the safety situation in coal production will improve.

(China Daily November 29, 2006)

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