Remembering all coal’s victims

Guest post by CC Huang, Professional Association for China’s Environment

The series of explosions that ripped through New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine, the successful Chilean mine rescue and the numerous miners entombed or injured by blasts in coal mines in China has directed public focus on coal-mining related deaths on accidents.
However, coal mine safety, especially in China, cannot be guaranteed merely on the basis of preventing accidents. Recent statistics from the National Coal Mine Safety Supervision Bureau show that lung disease claims far more deaths than accidents. According to this article in Worker’s Daily, lung disease from breathing in high concentrations of dust in coal mines kills more than 6,000 people a year, which is double the number of deaths from accidents.
In China, coal is widely used because it is perceived as cheap and plentiful, but the true cost of coal in 2007 alone, as found in a report commissioned by Greenpeace, the Energy Foundation, and WWF, amounted to about 7.1% of GDP for that year. Environmental damage from coal extraction results in water pollution, ecosystem damage, air pollution, acid rain and so on – all contributing to the external costs of coal that are not accounted for in many economic evaluations of coal use. This same report shows that between 2000 and 2006, there were 18,516 accidents and 31,064 deaths in coal mines in China. Moreover, cases of pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) that afflicted coal mine workers accounted for 50% of all cases.
Recently, there has been a spate of media articles in the Chinese press on improving conditions for coal mines. It’s hard to tell whether some of these articles are serious or not. For example, one Xinhua article describes the “improved” conditions of one coal mine in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region: “Miners now can enjoy light music, crack a joke with loved ones through a walkie-talkie, or simply take a nap in the cafe. There are also sets of desks and chairs, potted plants and even a fish bowl.”
Another article speaks of a factory in North China that has begun production of coal mine rescue robots to collect data during mining accidents. These efforts to better working conditions for miners are well-intentioned, but it seems that China’s mining industry needs to re-orient its focus on basic components of mining safety, such as regular health check-ups or providing treatment.
According to Worker’s Daily, 64.3% of retired workers do not get health check-ups as regulations require and of those who do get health check-ups, misdiagnosis rates average 3.72%, and go as high as 20%. The data on actual coal mine dust concentration is even more staggering. Dust concentrations often exceed national standards by 49.5 to 855 times and this concentration will only become higher as miners have to mine deeper and deeper in order to access coal.
However, guaranteeing health check-ups to workers will only mitigate some of the problem. The Chinese government ran a campaign to monitor employers and to improve health hazards, to enroll worker’s in insurance, to mandate workers to sign employment contracts with employees and to train employees on disease prevention and control. Many of these efforts will still encounter road blocks to improving safety. These are issues such as:
1.      Workers sometimes refuse to sign contracts with employers because this increases the risk of hiring them and employer’s will often threaten to reduce their salary or not hire them at all.
2.      Workers lack awareness about their legal rights.
3.      Employers make it difficult for worker’s to obtain the appropriate legal documents to be compensated or to receive treatment.
4.      Workers have a difficult time even just proving they have the disease. Workers still have to go so far as to have open chest surgery in order to prove that they have occupational lung disease.
5.      Workers who already have the disease might not live long enough to see a settlement. Employer’s can drag cases on for several years before any conclusion is reached.