MAC: Mines and Communities

China and US coal disasters

Published by MAC on 2006-01-07

China and US coal disasters

7th January 2006

Two very different nations: similar attrition from coal

The latest official Chinese statistics on coal mine accidents and deaths appear to show a modest decrease since 2002. However, as pointed out by China Labour Bulletin, the number of those killed in the worst disasters has not only increased, but "major accidents" have claimed two to three times as many mineworkers' lives.

China is unanimously regarded as the worst violator of Occupational Health and Safety in mining. But, by savage coincidence, just two days before these statistics were released, the US, generally considered to enjoy the safest minework record, suffered its most serious "accident" in nearly five years.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has launched an investigation into the deaths of workers at the non-unionised Sago mine, while Congressional Democrats are calling for hearings to examine mine safety, as well as the Bush Administration's enforcement of mine regulations. Next year's MSHA budget has been cut by $4.9 million in real-dollar terms, while MSHA staffing has been reduced by 170 positions since 2001.

The U.S. NGO, American Rights At Work, claims that the disaster shows "just how dangerous the mining industry continues to be...It is no coincidence that the Sago mine produced safety infractions at several times the industry norm, and that it is a non-union mine, where workers did not enjoy the job protection to speak out. Concerns about safety and health risks are one of the most compelling reasons why workers seek unions on the job in the first place."

Deconstructing deadly details from China's coal mine safety statistics

China Labour Bulletin News Flash No. 60, Hong Kong

6th January 2006

Statistics released in the first week of the new year suggest that there was a slight but significant improvement in coal mine safety in China in 2005, but deconstructuring the aggregate figures in that report shows that bigger disasters happened more frequently and killed two to three times as many people compared with the previous year.

China Labour Bulletin once again calls on the Chinese authorities to reform the current work safety supervision system and allow miners themselves to organize their own work safety teams and take part directly in safety supervision.

The State Administration of Work Safety announced on 4 January that 5,986 miners died in 3,341 accidents in 2005, a decrease of 8.2 percent compared with 2004.

Table 1: Coal mine accidents and deaths in China

Total number of coal mine accidents (a)

Total number of deaths (b)

Year 2000

a) 2,863
b) 5,798

Year 2001

a) 3,082
b) 5,670

Year 2002

a) 4,344
b) 6,995

Year 2003

a) 4,143
b) 6,434

Year 2004

a) 3,639
b) 6,027

Year 2005

a) 3,341
b) 5,986

Source: State Administration of Work Safety

From Table 1: the total number of coal mine accidents and the total number of deaths seem to be decreasing since 2002. Assuming the figures are a true account of the past 12 to 36 months, they could be misleading in suggesting an improvement.

From Table 2: (Breakdown of China's major coal mine accidents and deaths per accident)

Number of coal mine accidents causing 10-29 deaths (a)

Number of deaths in coal mine accidents causing 10- 29 deaths (b)

Number of coal mine accidents causing more than 30 deaths (c)

No. of deaths in coal mine accidents causing more than 30 deaths (d)

Year 2001

a) 49
b) 1015
c) 8
d) 373

Year 2002

a) 47
b) 750
c) 9
d) 417

Year 2003

a) 44
b) 701
c) 7
d) 360

Year 2004

a) 34
b) 492
c) 7
d) 487

Year 2005

a) 58
b) 1739
d) 11
d) 961

Source: State Administration of Work Safety

From Table 2: it can be seen that the number of large-scale coal mine disasters, resulting in more than 10 deaths, has in fact increased dramatically in 2005 compared with previous years. The number of coal mine accidents resulting in 10-29 deaths increased by 71 percent in 2005 and the number of deaths in these accidents increased by 253 percent.

The number of coal mine accidents resulting in more than 30 deaths climbed 57 percent and the number of deaths in these accidents leaped by 97 percent over the previous year.

The sharp increases were seen despite year-long efforts by the central government to reduce the number, frequency and severity of accidents. Measures taken during the year included elevating of the State Administration of Work Safety to ministry level and renaming it, the General Administration of Work Safety in March; issuing central government orders to all government officials to withdraw their personal investment in coal mines; and ordering the closure of more than 12,000 small mines across the country.

The overall decline in the total number of accidents and deaths compared with 2004 could be due to the fact that the central government ordered local government officials to crackdown small mines in their areas. At the same time, the policy initiatives have done nothing to help reduce the number of large-scale coal mine disasters and the number of deaths in such accidents.

US: worst mine disaster in years

Soon after families were told that all but one miner had been rescued from the January 2nd coal mine explosion in West Virginia, the figures were reversed. In fact twelve out of thirteen of their kin had died. This was the worst mine disaster in the US for more than four years.

US mining safety under scrutiny

by Matthew Davis / BBC News, Washington

5th January 2006

The deadliest coal-mining accident in the United States for more than four years has sparked calls for an urgent review of how safety regulations are enforced.

The USA averages around 30 mining deaths per year - compared to some 8,000 in China - and its safety record has been steadily improving over the past few decades.

But the case of Sago mine - where 12 miners died following an explosion on Monday - has raised concerns over the effectiveness of the penalties for violations of safety laws.

Every mine in the US has at least four mandatory inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration each year.

The MSHA can impose fines ranging from $60 for minor, uncorrected safety breaches to $60,000 for the most serious, life-threatening offences.

Sago mine - bought by International Coal Group in November - was cited for 208, mostly minor, alleged safety violations last year, according to federal records.

The fact that the Sago Mine had a long history of serious safety violations demands that Congress learn why more wasn't done to keep these workers safe

It has so far been assessed for fines of just $24,000 for the lapses - which include multiple citations for failing to fully secure the mine against parts of the roof collapsing, and for inadequate ventilation.

"One might expect massive penalty assessments under federal law for such a dismal record," Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing labour issues, wrote to committee chairman John Boehner.

"The fact that the Sago Mine had a long history of serious safety violations demands that Congress learn why more wasn't done to keep these workers safe," Mr Miller added.

He said the committee should also look into whether the appointment of officials with close ties to the mining industry to the industry watchdog had resulted in a rollback in safety regulations.

Hiring shortages

The deaths in West Virginia have been a stark reminder of how dangerous an operation coal mining can be.

It was the worst disaster to hit the industry since 13 people were killed in an explosion at a mine in Brookwood, Alabama in 2001.

Technology and automation have greatly reduced mine deaths overall in the US. There were 133 mining deaths in 1980, and only 22 last year.

But greater demand for coal coupled with hiring shortages and the reopening of older mines have resulted in more than 300 deaths since 2000.

The White House has been swift to defend the administration's record on mine safety rules, saying increased safety has been a priority.

The administration had called for a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the MSHA rules, but Congress had not acted on these proposals, press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Fault total 'high'

Federal investigators have yet to explain what caused the explosion at Sago mine.

But coal mine explosions are typically caused by build-ups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air.

The MSHA has defended the oversight of the Sago mine. The administration spent 744 hours inspecting the facility last year, an 84% increase over the year before.

An MSHA spokeswoman told the BBC the number of violations at Sago was "high, but not extraordinary" for a mine of its size.

All but three of the faults cited had been corrected, she said.

The National Mining Association, an industry group, says that the mining industry is one of the safest in the US, with a lower rate of non-fatal injuries and illnesses per 100 employees than the agriculture, construction or retail trades.

There are roughly 1,600 coal plants (units) in the US, and 1,100 manufacturing plants that use coal, but mining accounted for less than one percent of US fatal injuries in 2004, the NSA said.

Sago mine, where 12 miners lost their lives, is located in Appalachian coal country.

According to some commentators, coal mining in some regions of the Appalachia is a dangerous industry. The easy coal has already been mined and what is left can be difficult to extract.

The Sago disaster was the deadliest mining accident [in West Virginia] since November 1968, when 78 men - including the uncle of state Governor Joe Manchin, died in an explosion at a mine elsewhere in Upshur County.

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