A rash of accidents in China's coal mines has raised doubts about whether authorities have enforced a two-year-old safety rule, an RFA review of official reports suggests.
Despite safety improvements over the past decade, China's coal industry still ranks as the world's deadliest, claiming 1,973 lives in some 1,200 accidents last year.
Last month, at least 60 miners were killed, 16 were trapped, and 24 were injured in eight separate accidents reported by state media.
The wave of casualties followed a gas explosion in southwest Sichuan province on Aug. 29 that claimed the lives of 48 miners and injured 49 more, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Although causes and details of the accidents differ, they all appear to have one thing in common.
None have included reported casualties among mine managers or supervisors, despite a government rule that they be present with workers to ensure safety underground.
On July 9, 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao issued a strong statement to mine operators during a previous surge of lethal accidents, including a blast that killed 47 workers at an unlicensed pit in central Henan province two weeks before.
"Enterprise leaders should work on-site shifts in rotation, while coal mine and non-coal mine leaders should work shifts and descend into mine pits with workers," said Wen, the official English-language China Daily reported at the time.
Two weeks later, the State Council published a circular requiring "at least one senior manager of mines to accompany miners underground at all times," pledging that violations would be met with administrative punishments and fines.
Few supervisor casualties
Yet, among the dozens of accidents reported this year by official media, only one has cited casualties among mine managers or supervisors, according to the RFA review.
With the exception of a cave-in at a shaft in southwest China's Yunnan province in May, only workers appear to have been trapped, injured, or killed.
In the single case in Yunnan's Luxi County, the mine's manager and a safety inspector were trapped along with eight workers during an examination of ventilation facilities, not during production, Xinhua reported.
Firm conclusions are difficult because China's safest mines may be following the rules and avoiding accidents, said Tim Wright, an expert on China's coal mines and professor of East Asian studies at Britain's University of Sheffield.
But the infrequency of reports on supervisor casualties is a sign that many mines are not observing the rule.
"I think it's not been probably the best way to improve coal safety and that management has, where it can, ignored the rule," Wright said in an interview.
Skirting the rules
Wright cited reports of mine managers trying to sidestep the requirements by formally resigning and promoting miners to assume supervisory titles in order to avoid underground duty without giving up power.
In September 2010, the China Daily reported that a privately-owned mine in southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region planned to appoint "assistants to managers" to serve as "mine leaders," leaving the real managers to stay above ground.
Days later, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) prohibited the practice, the paper said. But the accident reports raise doubts about how well the rules have been enforced.
"When central government orders or regulations conflict with the interests of different groups in local societies, it is always going to be difficult to enforce those," said Wright. "In this case, we have a small group—the managers, obviously—who have an interest."
Despite the apparent flaunting of the rules and the recent accidents, China has made remarkable progress on mine safety, according to the official reports.
Last year's death toll was down 19 percent from 2010, SAWS said in January. Since then, fatality rates have continued to fall.
In the first quarter of the year, 289 people were killed in mining accidents, down 16.5 percent from the year-earlier period, according to SAWS.
As of Aug. 20, this year's death toll stood at 832, declining 32 percent, SAWS spokesman Huang Yi said.
But even with the improvements, China's death rates in coal mining remain many times higher than those in the United States, where 16 workers have died so far this year, according to Department of Labor data. China produces nearly four times as much coal.
Wright said major improvements in China have come from better venting and extraction of explosive mine gases. Since April, SAWS has required mines with high levels of gas to spend at least 30 yuan (U.S. $4.77) per ton on safety measures.
The central government has also ordered the shutdown of hundreds of small and dangerous mines.
Over 85 percent of China's 12,000 mines are small operations that account for one-third of the country's production but two-thirds of fatal accidents, Huang said in August.
During the past year, numerous mine managers and local officials have been detained for covering up accidents, under-reporting fatalities or failing to call county-level safety supervisors within the required one-hour time limit to launch rescue efforts.
In one of the most notorious cases involving supervisors last November, the duty manager at an illegal coal mine in Yunnan province was detained following a gas explosion that killed 35 workers.
The official smudged dust on his face and told investigators he had escaped through a tunnel, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a local official. But the manager was actually asleep and not inside the mine when the blast took place, China National Radio said.