Despite a steady stream of accidents, China has reported major progress in reducing deaths in coal mines last year.
In 2012, coal mine accidents claimed 1,384 lives, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) said on Feb. 12, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The death toll was down 29.9 percent from a year earlier, based on figures released by SAWS chief engineer Huang Yi.
SAWS also recorded a significant drop in fatality rates per volume of coal mined. Last year, 37 workers died per 100 million metric tons, down from 56.4 deaths in 2011, SAWS said.
While fatalities fell, coal production rose 4 percent to 3.66 billion tons, the China National Coal Association said.
China's coal industry remains the world's largest and still arguably the most dangerous, but last year's drop in the official death count was the most dramatic in recent years.
"I have to say that I've been surprised at the speed with which things have improved," said Tim Wright, a China coal mining expert and professor of East Asian studies at Britain's University of Sheffield.
Based on previous official reports, mining deaths are down by nearly half since 2009, while production has climbed by over 23 percent. Fatalities have fallen by nearly two-thirds in five years.
Deaths per ton of production have declined by a factor of 10 since 2003, Wright said.
Wright cited several key factors, including greater determination by the central government to improve safety, the shutdown of smaller mines and competition for a less plentiful labor pool.
In interviews and press reports, coal miners have cited safety as their top priority.
"Mining companies are now having to take more notice of this," said Wright.
Fatality rate still high
The tone of state media reports may be nearly as notable as the sharp drop in deaths.
Xinhua stressed that China's fatality rate was still far higher than in the U.S. coal industry, which it cited as 1.9 deaths per 100 million metric tons in 2011.
Last year, there were 19 accidental deaths in U.S. coal mines, the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration said.
The United States produced 1.02 billion short tons of coal, or about one-fourth of China's output, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. That would make China's fatality rates about 18 times as high.
"The work safety situation at coal mines remains grim and we cannot be blindly optimistic," said Huang.
SAWS cited several recent safety measures and more that are reportedly planned.
New rules put into effect in January hold mine managers accountable for worker protection, Xinhua said. Previous enforcement efforts have had mixed results
Last October, a Radio Free Asia review of official reports found that rules requiring managers to accompany workers underground on all shifts had been routinely ignored.
It is unclear whether the new regulation has improved safety efforts, but in January, China's Supreme People's Court ruled that officials should be punished with "aggravated penalties" in cases involving fatalities, coverups or delayed reports.
The latest SAWS accounting acknowledges that safety violations persist.
Huang said that 43 percent of major accidents in the past decade took place at illegal or unlicensed mines.
Ninety-three percent of major gas explosions were caused by problems with ventilation systems, SAWS said.
The government has given all mines until the end of June to install emergency systems under a State Council order in 2010, Xinhua said earlier this month.
China plans to close 5,000 small coal mines this year and is considering a rule to raise the annual production minimum for licensed mines in major coal producing regions to 3 million tons.
The encouraging signs for safety have been quickly followed by more reports of violations, however.
On Feb. 16, Xinhua reported that 33 mining and government officials in western Gansu province were punished for covering up a flooding accident in January that left four workers dead.
Owners of the Jinyuan mine in Zhangye City reportedly tried to conceal the Jan. 3 accident but were exposed by whistle blower, who notified safety authorities. Twenty civil servants with supervisory responsibilities were fired or given disciplinary sanctions, Xinhua said.
On Feb. 21, the deaths of seven workers were also confirmed after flooding in an illegal pit below a residential building in Yangquan City of western Shanxi province, state media reported.
The cases may raise questions about the accuracy of the latest official data and whether the size of last year's drop in the death toll should be believed.
China's official coal production figures have already come under fire.
Research by Kevin J. Tu, an energy expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, has found that some provinces exceed their government-assigned production limits by as much as 18 percent.
In a 2011 paper for Stanford University, Tu also reported that annual provincial figures for coal production have topped national totals by over 500 million tons. The surplus is suspected to be part of an illegal coal trade.
Wright said the official fatality figures may be off by similar margins, but without other sources of information, it is impossible to tell.
Improvements in death tolls and fatality rates are evident, but the claims of a near 30-percent drop in one year may be at the limit of credibility.
"There's no doubt whatsoever that the (fatality) figures are under-reported," said Wright, although real progress still seems likely because coverups have been a constant for years.
The explosion of social media may make concealment harder on the one hand, while motivation may be growing due to tougher penalties on the other.
How such factors affect reductions in the real death count is anyone's guess.
"I'd have to say 30 percent is the maximum I'd find credible," Wright said.