Another Major Coal Mine Disaster Adds to China's Mine Death Toll

February 23, 2005

A gas explosion inside the Sunjiawan mine near Fuxin, Liaoning province, killed 209 miners, with six miners still missing, according to a report from Xinhua. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao quickly issued a statement on the disaster (reported in the Peoples Daily), and dispatched State Council member Hua Jianmin to the site to meet with local officials, console the families, and determine the cause of the accident. The China Court Network reports that the State Council also established a special investigation team comprised of senior officials such as Wang Xianzheng, director of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), and Liaoning governor Zhang Wenyue to look into the incident.

The Sunjiawan mine explosion follows a deadly string of mine disasters in China since 1991, which the Associated Press has listed. The latest mine explosion occurred in November 2004 in Shaanxi province; 166 miners died. Only a 1942 mine disaster in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in which 1,549 miners died exceeds the death toll at Sunjiawan.

The Chinese government has made some efforts to improve mine safety in recent years. For example, the government publication China Safety reports that the Sunjiawan mine was among those to have received updated safety equipment in 2001. A number of international initiatives are also underway, as Dave Feickert discussed at a recent CECC roundtable. The ILO is working directly with China on a project to train miners in Hunan province. In addition, a joint delegation representing the ILO and the International Federations of Energy and Mining Trade Unions and Employers recently investigated how a tripartite approach might help improve mine safety. A similar and linked Australian tripartite initiative is also taking shape. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor has funded a program by the U.S. National Safety Council to train miners and operators in safe methods and practices. See CECC 2004 Annual Report.

Chinese miners know they are working in the world's deadliest mines, but most accept the risk to have jobs that pay ten times the average annual income of rural residents. The New York Times reports that miners are more concerned with losing their jobs than the hazards they face. Celine Sun writes in the South China Morning Post that China’s booming economy and huge demand for coal is one of the main reasons that mine owners and government officials ignore mine safety measures.