BOSTON--The death count in China's coal mines dropped substantially in the first half of 2009, said a safety official, citing slower economic growth as a factor in the decline.
The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) recorded 1,175 mining fatalities in the first six months of the year, an 18.4 percent decrease from the year-earlier period, said Huang Yi, spokesman for SAWS, according to a report in the official China Daily on July 18.
Huang noted slower growth in coal production than in previous years due to economic conditions, pointing to a 4.2 percent increase in output. Fatalities fell to "a record low of 6.4 deaths per day," he said. In 2008 and 2007, the rates were 8.8 and 10.4 deaths per day, the English-language China Daily reported, apparently quoting respective full-year figures.
It is unclear how many lives were saved as a result of eased demand for China's main fuel, in part because first-half production growth was actually considerably greater than the margin that Huang quoted.
Coal output rose 8.7 percent to 1.36 billion tons, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported on July 17, although the rate was still slower than the 11.1 percent increase in the comparable period of 2008.
China has also made strides in reducing deaths by closing smaller, more dangerous mines and stepping up safety enforcement. Between 2004 and 2008, recorded deaths declined some 46 percent while China's coal output rose 38 percent, according to previous official reports.
'World's most dangerous'
That said, China's coal industry remains the world's most dangerous for workers. In the United States, 8 coal miners died as the result of accidents in the first half of this year, while U.S. coal production stood at about 40 percent of China's, according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates and mine safety data from the Department of Labor.
The figures mean that nearly 147 times as many workers have died in Chinese mines this year to produce about two-and-a-half times as much coal, according to Radio Free Asia calculations.
Huang's comments about slower growth suggest that officials recognize a link between pressure to produce and the risk of fatal accidents.
"That's certainly the case," said Tim Wright, an expert on China's coal industry at Britain's University of Sheffield School of East Asian Studies, in an RFA interview. "There's more incentive to open dangerous small mines and to resist their closure when prices and profits are high."
Wright said that similar effects can be seen in all economies. When production is squeezed, "pressure on work is greater, and that pushes safety lower down the list of priorities."
Despite the pressures, China has made progress in reducing fatalities in both large and small mines, which have far higher death rates, said Wright.
"The improvement has been across the board. The number of deaths and the death rate in state-owned mines have also decreased very substantially," he said.
Media more vigilant
China's media have also become more vigilant in reporting on rights abuses related to illegal small mines.
On July 21, China Daily publicized a report by China National Radio (CNR) on two teachers in Hengshan county of Shaanxi province who were allegedly suspended from their jobs because a relative was leading a petition against two illegal mines that polluted water and farmland.
Local officials held stakes in the mines despite a government ban on ownership interests, CNR said.
Estimates of China's small coal mines and the government's success in closing them vary widely. In May, Jiang Zhimin, deputy director of the China Coal Industry Association, said that 70 percent of the country's 80,000 mines are small, producing 300,000 tons per year or less.
Only 24 coal groups have annual output of over 10 million tons, he said.
Wright said the greatest opportunity for reducing death rates is still likely from the shutdown of smaller mines.
"We're looking at an improvement across the board, but in terms of saving lives it is the closure--as far as that has taken place--of the small mines which makes the biggest contribution," he said.
Wright said comparisons of U.S. and Chinese fatality rates are difficult because most U.S. mining is open-cast, or above ground, while China's coal comes mainly from more dangerous underground shafts.
"Until the Chinese industry is predominantly open-cast, which is still a long way off, it will remain a dangerous business," he said.