China improved its accident record in the coal industry last year as officials called for greater efforts to protect workers in one of the world's most dangerous jobs.
Coal mine accidents claimed 2,433 lives in 2010, a 7.5-percent reduction from the previous year, said a spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), official media reported.
The drop in the death count fell short of the 18-percent decline in 2009, according to SAWS data, but the fatality rate appears to have fallen by 14.5 percent based on the tonnage of coal mined.
While coal output continues to rise, the death totals have dropped for five years in row, the official English-language China Daily said.
Although questions continue about official data and accident cover-ups, there seems to be little doubt that safety is gradually improving.
"I'm sure it's a genuine improvement," said Tim Wright, a professor of East Asian studies and coal industry expert at Britain's University of Sheffield.
"I don't think the figures encompass all coal mine accidents, but they never have," said Wright. "I think it's genuine because it's increasingly difficult to conceal major accidents."
Rate remains high
Based on the numbers, China has made significant strides in mining safety over the past decade. In 1996-2000, annual fatalities averaged 7,619, or over 20 deaths per day, according to previous SAWS reports.
The agency's spokesman and chief engineer, Huang Yi, was candid about the seriousness of China's safety problems, noting that the average death toll of over six workers per day "remains high."
Even in a year when the United States suffered its worst coal accident since 1970 with 29 lives lost at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, China's death rate remained staggeringly higher.
China produced three times as much coal as the United States in 2010 with 50 times the number of fatalities, based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
In an unusually frank report, China Daily noted an estimate by the National Energy Agency (NEA) that the country's fatality rate in coal mines is 30 to 50 times that in developed countries.
It also noted a recent cove-rup case following a mine explosion in Mianchi county in central Henan province, where police found four bodies "deliberately hidden." Nine other deaths were "underreported," the paper said.
The central government has pressed for accountability by increasing the weighting of safety records in career appraisals of local officials. But Wright said the system may cut both ways, raising the stakes for improvements but also for cover-ups if accidents occur.
Huang said the government has set a compulsory target of reducing the fatality rate by 28 percent over the next five years, adding that "many mines" continue to ignore safety.
Wright said greater attention to worker welfare has helped to shine a spotlight on the industry's deadly dangers.
"I think it is an international embarrassment for the Chinese," he said. "As China moves from being a poor country to a middle-income country which has ambitions to be a big player on the world stage, this becomes more and more unacceptable."
The government has been pursuing a policy of merging small mines into larger companies to curb unsafe practices.
Huang said SAWS had closed over 21,000 illegal coal mines and cut small operations by half since 2005, although past reports suggest that some have reopened surreptitiously.
In November, the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety (SACMS) announced several new measures to reduce worker risks, including a requirement that all mines be equipped with emergency shelters by mid-2013.
Mines were also ordered to complete the installation of monitoring, ventilation, and other safety systems by the end of last year.
Wright said higher coal prices have also helped, although they may add pressure for more unsafe production in the short term.
"In the medium and long term, it does create the resources to improve safety and conditions. Actually, the investment in safety has gone up very substantially," he said.
Labor shortages and wage increases in coastal areas may be playing a part by offering more opportunities to migrant workers who would otherwise gravitate toward coal mines.
"It may be that the increased alternatives available to young male workers are also forcing coal mines to address what is unquestionably their main concern—safety," Wright said.
But China's soaring coal output has raised concerns that the biggest gains in reducing the death toll may already have passed. Last year, production rose 8 percent to 3.2 billion tons, capping a 52-percent increase since 2005.
China's continuing growth in energy demand may mean that big double-digit drops in fatalities will become harder to achieve, leaving the death count at stubbornly high levels.
The five-year target for cutting the fatality rate is considerably less than the 73-percent reduction cited by SAWS for the past five years.
"The industry is still so varied that there is still probably a lot of room for lagging areas to come up to best practice," said Wright.
"I would expect the improvement to continue for a few years, though gradually slowing down until they've exhausted all the easy gains and have to put more resources, both financial and human, into making further improvements," he said.