It snowed earlier this year in northern China and heating systems were switched on ahead of schedule to keep residents warm. Yet not many people are aware that this means more coal is being burnt, and even fewer would spare a thought for those who bring the fossil fuel from hundreds of meters under to the ground.
Until, that is, another big accident wakes us up to the extremely dangerous condition under which miners work. A gas explosion which took place early Saturday morning in a State-owned coalmine in Hegang of Heilongjiang province has claimed 92 lives and another 16 are still trapped in the shaft.
The cause of the accident is under investigation, and we do not know many details other than that the blast happened nearly an hour after gas was detected and an alarm raised. What we are sure about is that safety measures to prevent a gas explosion had not been strictly implemented. Chinese coalmines are never short of rules and regulations, which were revised and upgraded based on the experiences and lessons from so many accidents. But tragedies like the most recent one still cannot be prevented due to loopholes in implementation of safety measures.
In recent years, most big coalmine accidents have been in winter. Almost all the accidents that caused more than 100 deaths since 2002 took place between late October and the end of February. There are several reasons behind it.
First, just as the Hegang coalmine warns on its website, winter is the season that sees the most irregular gas flows. And a gas explosion is indeed the most deadly threat for collieries. It was the cause of 21 coalmine accidents out of the 24 involving more than 100 deaths since New China was founded in 1949. Regulations regarding gas detection, alarm and evacuation must be implemented to the letter all year around, especially in winter.
Second, there is always a big increase in demand for coal during winter because of the need to provide heating. Demand is even stronger this winter as factories start to hum again with the economy beginning to recover. When prices go up, coalmines strive to produce more. The danger increases but safety measures are slackened when coalmines are overstretched to seek more profits. Once an accident happens, the coalmine will be ordered to stop production. But it will again operate above capacity after the ban to make up for what it has missed, leading to more accidents.
How to break the vicious cycle poses a big challenge for the authorities. China's over-reliance on the fossil fuel and the low efficiency of its industry means there will be no substantial cut in the number of miners, 7 million. But do they have to die to keep us warm and the factories up and running? Is there a way to keep casualties to the minimum?
"You have only one life. There is no rehearsal or do-overs," says a slogan of the group which owns the Hegang coalmine. If the mine owners and authorities are serious about the value of a miner's life, they should put it above market demand, profits or GDP growth.
More efforts are needed to improve legislation and implementation, to develop new technology to step up monitoring and preventive measures, to train the miners, and to raise their awareness of labor rights.
(China Daily 11/23/2009 page4)