Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Chinese officials say true work safety is a tough challenge

AGENCIES , BEIJING

The equivalent of a jumbo jet of people a day are killed at work in China, safety officials said yesterday, adding it could take another two decades before there is significant improvement.

But they lauded progress so far this year at closing down dangerous and illegal coal mines and pledged to crack down on corruption and recalcitrant companies that refused to take safety seriously, although they outlined no concrete measures.

China, home to the world's most deadly mining industry, reports an average of 320 deaths at work daily, said Li Yizhong (李毅中), head of the State Administration of Work Safety.

Yet even with almost 110,000 work deaths this year, the toll decreased by 10 percent from last year, Li told a news conference.

"China is such a large country -- and a developing one at that -- with 1.3 billion people and is in a rapid pace of industrialization, so accidents happen easily and cannot be avoided," he said.

"In the next 10 or 20 years, it will be a development opportunity period as well as a time for very obvious contradictions," said Li, who admitted he felt a heavy burden in dealing with the country's horrendous safety issues.

"The situation is generally stable and improving, but still serious. I have to say both of these sentences," he said. "We will not be successful overnight."

Fatal accidents occur almost daily in Chinese mines as safety regulations are ignored and production is pushed beyond safe limits in the rush to get rich. Local officials often turn a blind eye in exchange for a cut of the profits.

"The background of some accidents is that dereliction of duty, exchanging favors for money, collusion between businesses and officials, and corruption is quite serious," said Li, who has been reported to pound his desk in anger at mine disasters.

The government will have closed more than 2,500 small and unsafe coal mines this year and about the same next year, authorities said.

Dozens of officials were punished for corruption or negligence in fatal accidents over the past year, Li said, adding that with coal prices high, the danger was that greed led bosses to reopen closed mines.

But he sought to assuage worries the crackdown would impact economic development, either nationally or locally, though he said he understood the worries of local officials.

Despite the mine closures, national coal output would still rise more than 8 percent this year, Li said.

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