Mining safety in China is inexcusable

April 30, 2010 — by Anoop Galivanche and Girish Swaminath

Luo Lin had never felt more relieved. As medical workers, soldiers and overzealous journalists stormed the countryside of Xianing County in the Chinese province of Shanxi, Lin, the head of China’s State Administration for Work Safety (SAWS) was at a loss for words. When reporters interviewed him about his sentiments regarding the state of SAWS and questioned his performance in the capacity, the man was noticeably less perceptive than similarly grueling press interviews he had participated in.

This was for good reason—the past week had been onerous for him, with 153 coal miners trapped in a mine that had safety mechanisms comparable to those of the famous 18th century British pits. By delicately managing an intricate balancing act involving a hungry press, angry bureaucrats and actual work, Lin and his colleagues were able to finally open up the mine. An unprecedented 115 workers were rescued—and the operation was hailed a remarkable success. The press had little to say about the remaining 38, whose lives were written off in true Communist fashion.

Its ever-growing economic hegemony and insidious business tactics in global markets makes it easy for the press and, in turn, the people, to forget about China’s operational practices on the small scale. But it is imperative that China, as its own government has vocally proposed on numerous occasions, take a step back and improve working safety conditions in its mines in order to build a stronger platform for guilt-free and sustainable economic progress.

China’s mines are as important as they are dangerous. Its coal mines comprise the very vertebrae of its growth, helping China meet its increasing energy demands, with 80 percent of Chinese electricity supplied by coal.

The desperate need for coal, and other mineable resources, has precipitated a mad-dash that has had private and state-run firms alike scrambling to open more and more mines. Cutting corners in implementing safety mechanisms is a popular method of lowering overheads and slashing construction time in half. In the end, everyone profits—except for the families whose husbands, brothers, and sons were one of the 20,000 miners that die every year from irresponsible and hazardous mines. This number, which doesn’t even include the 10,000 workers that die annually from medical conditions brought on by mine safety problems, is ridiculous, especially when propped against the mere 65 mining deaths the United States sustained in the same time frame.

But what makes China’s mine safety problems truly pathetic is that there are so many unexplored solutions that could very well cut the disturbing statistics in half, if not eliminating them entirely. Any course of action in improving Chinese mines needs to begin with more regulation.

Using its influence, the Chinese government needs to crack down on all mines. Regulation begins with creating minimum solvency requirements for private companies and hiring more mining inspectors to ensure that all mines conform to a high standard of safety. This kind of regulation will solve two problems—making sure that mines have enough money to stay profitable while also engaging in safe business practices, and will improve the inadequate number of inspectors that China has for its mines.

The problem won’t be solved with just rules and policies; tangible requirements need to be set forth. A Congressional report tells of how the majority of Chinese mines use severely antiquated safety practices. The BBC goes further when it compared conditions in the pits to those of 18th century British mines, citing notable lapses in mining safety—including poor air filters that lead to the build up of poisonous gases, and weak ancillary structures that are prone to collapse. Such conditions, which in retrospect make disasters seem almost inevitable, need to be fixed.

As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is time that China moves past reforming its economic agenda and looks to its myriad social concerns. The compromise China needs to strike lies somewhere in the vast, untouched region of socially beneficial economic progress. And if it doesn’t venture into this terrain soon, Lin and his colleagues will have to worry about a whole lot more than pleasing the press—they’ll have to worry about the people.

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