Why are many of China’s coalmines closed?

Safety At Work magazine has been reporting on the seemingly endless deaths in the Chinese mining industry for many years.  Many of the mine fatalities are of multiples that would generate huge investigations in the west.  Many deaths are compounded by the attempts of mine managers to minimise the scale of the disasters by delaying reporting the incident, not reporting at all, or disposing of the bodies. 

These incidents have occurred mostly in privately-run mines and over the last couple of years the government has had regular crackdowns on the industry.

China is a good example of a country that manages safety in reaction to disasters.  Poor safety management is often ignored as long as production is guaranteed.  This is evident in its manufacturing sector as much as it is in mining.

John Garnaut in The Age newspaper on August 4 2008 reports on the actions of the Chinese government in the mining sector in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.  Garnaut reports that migrant workers were sent home weeks ago without pay.  At one mine he attended, work was stopped by management, ostensibly due to his presence as a journalist.

The closure of these mines has had a heavy impact on the coal supply and coal prices and Garnaut says that the action of the government has come about to

“prevent the Olympic Games from being marred by embarrassing reports of mine disasters.”

China’s decision shows how sensitive it is to criticism from other countries. The mess over internet access is a further example.

China does not only manage safety reactively, it manages through diversion, concealment and censorship.

What Garnaut’s reporting and China’s censorship shows is that safety of workers, and accountability of business owners can be improved through the attention of outsiders.  For over seven years, in my experience, China has been experiencing almost monthly fatalities in its coal industry.  I have been publishing whatever reports I can obtain (legitimately) from the wire service, however similar reports have not been appearing in the mainstream, or event the trade, press.  The community is generally unaware of the cultural negligence that the Chinese system of production and regulation allows. 

Perhaps it is a truth that few of us really care but one of the major threats to any management process is hypocrisy.  The Chinese government may be comfortable with that but our own governments should not be hypocrites in our trade negotiations with partners like China.


The Associated Press has reported a gas explosion in a coal mine in at the Baijiagou mine in the northeast of Liaoning province on 18 August 2008. Twenty-four workers are trapped but fifty-six other miners escaped without injury. The story came through the Xinhua News Agency in China, so it will be worth seeing, during this Olympics fervour, what attention this disaster receives from the West

Crandall Canyon Mine Investigation Report

On 24 July 2008 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced that it has fined the operator of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah, $1,340,000 for violations that directly contributed to the deaths of six miners in 2007.

According to MSHA’s media release, Agapito Associates Inc., a mining engineering consultant, was fined $220,000 for faulty analysis of the mine’s design. MSHA cited the mine operator for 11 additional, non-contributory violations issued as the result of the investigation. The proposed penalty for these violations is $296,664, bringing the total proposed penalties against the mine operator to $1,636,664. Crandall Canyon Mine is operated by Genwal Resources Inc., whose parent company is Murray Energy Corp.

Safety At Work magazine covered the incident extensively as it provided a stained mirror to the lucky rescue of the miners from Tasmania’s Beaconsfield mine. I reported elsewhere on the fresh seismology findings.

Safety at Work magazine - August 2007
Safety at Work magazine - August 2007

The MSHA report states that

“Three separate methods of analysis employed as part of MSHA’s investigation confirmed that the mining plan was destined to fail.” (my emphasis)

To a non-US observer the fine seems remarkably light given that the mining plan was critically deficient, 6 people died in the first incident and 3 died ten days later.

Not everyone is happy with how the investigation has been conducted.

MSHA accident investigators have cited Genwal Resources Inc. and Agapito Associates Inc. for the following violations:

  • The mine operator did not immediately contact MSHA after coal outbursts threw coal into the mine openings and disrupted regular mining activities for more than one hour on three separate occasions prior to the August 6 outburst.
  • The mine operator failed to propose revisions to the roof control plan when conditions (coal outbursts) clearly indicated that the plan was inadequate and miners were being exposed to dangerous conditions.
  • The operator violated the approved roof control plan by removing coal that was required to support the roof.
  • The operator’s outside engineering firm failed to recommend safe mining methods and pillar/barrier dimensions, and the operator failed to maintain pillar dimensions that would effectively control coal outbursts.

The complete accident investigation report (16 megabyte) is available at as is MSHA’s response and additional content.

The earlier investigation report by the Utah Mine Safety Commission is available HERE

Imperial Sugar explosion update

Last month America’s 60 Minutes broadcast an article on the explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant (pictured below) in Port Wentworth which killed 13 workers and hospitalised 40.  On 25 July 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations proposing penalties totalling $8,777,500 against the Imperial Sugar Co. and its two affiliates alleging violations at their plants in Port Wentworth and Gramercy. 

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has released some details about its appearance at the US Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on 29 July 2008. (Transcripts and video are available HERE)

CSB Chairman John Bresland said the tragedy demonstrates the need for a new OSHA standard that would cover a range of industries exposed to this hazard, such as food, chemicals, plastics, automotive parts, pharmaceuticals, electrical power (where generated by coal) and others.
According to the CSB, Chairman Bresland told the subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington,

‘After witnessing the terrible human and physical toll from the Imperial explosion, I believe the urgency of a new combustible dust standard is greater than ever. A new standard, combined with enforcement and education, will save workers’ lives.’
‘We obtained documents indicating that certain parts of Imperial’s milling process were releasing tens of thousands of pounds of sugar per month into the work area. Based on our evidence, Imperial did not have a written dust control program or a program for using safe dust removal methods. And the company lacked a formal training program to educate its workers about combustible dust hazards.’

Bresland emphasised the need for a uniform Federal standard:

‘Instead of the present patchwork of miscellaneous federal, state, and local requirements, the Chemical Safety Board has recommended that OSHA develop a single, comprehensive, uniform standard – based on the sound, consensus-based technical principles and practices that are embodied in NFPA standards,’ Chairman Bresland said.  ‘Ambiguities in the NFPA standards need to be resolved in clear, enforceable regulations developed by a thorough, public rulemaking process.’



Formaldehyde risks of temporary accommodation

There is continuing concern in the United States about the thousands of claims of health problems by survivors of Hurricane Katrina related to living in trailers provided to them by the government. (A 23 July 2008 podcast includes a mention of this issue but the relevant information is within the first 3 minutes)  The problem is that residents were exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde.

This may sound familiar to some Australian OHS professionals as similar claims were made over formaldehyde exposure in temporary housing for government workers who were participating in the Federal government’s indigenous intervention program.  The ABC reported that the government investigation found 

“department’s response to the complaints was slow and inappropriate given the seriousness of the health risk.”

An earlier report on this matter containing commitments to health and safety by the Minister is available HERE

The full report by Tony Blunn is available for download as is the relevant media statement by Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Texas Crane Collapse

Large cranes are now a basic tool for high-rise construction.  Over the last six months the United States has had several crane collapses.  The latest occurred in Texas on 19 July 2008 and involved a mobile crane.  The collapse resulted in four deaths and injuries to seven workers.  Fed-OSHA is investigating but as this is the latest in a run of collapses there is increased media attention.

According to the most recent media statement by the company that owned the crane, Deep South Crane & Rigging

“The Deep South Crane and Rigging Company experienced a tragic industrial accident yesterday in Houston, TX, that resulted in the death of four members of our company family. Our thoughts and prayers are focused on our deceased co-workers, their families and friends, and the extended Deep South Crane and Rigging family.

We wish we had all of the answers on what happened and why – but we do not – and speculating on cause would not resolve anything. But we are actively working to find those answers. We are fully engaged and cooperating with OSHA in their investigation of the accident. Our common goal is to identify the root cause, correct any issue that may be found, and ensure that this type of tragic accident does not occur again.”

According to one article:

“An Associated Press analysis in June found that cities and states have wildly varying rules governing construction cranes, and some have no regulations at all, choosing instead to rely on federal guidelines dating back nearly 40 years that some experts say have not kept up with technological advances.”

Video and audio reports on the incident are available through the links below.  SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting on any new information about the investigations

Company representative – http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/5896374.html  

Crane investigations – http://www.khou.com/video/index.html?nvid=264952 

Crane investigations/”competent person” – http://kut.org/items/show/13389

Beaconsfield Coronial Inquest Walkout

On 22 July 2008 the Tasmanian Coroner continued with his inquest into the death of Larry Knight at the Beaconsfield mine on 25 April 2006. Shortly after the start the legal team representing the mine walked out. Newspaper, radio and TV have covered this extraordinary development. Other reports in SafetyAtWorkBlog told of the lawyers’ attempts…

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Australian Level Crossings – Part 2

The Victorian Government’s investigation into level crossing safety is continuing. Yesterday the Parliamentary Committee on Road Safety ran a seminar on technological issues related to level crossings. Today (22 July 2008 ) I attended the morning session of a seminar on Fail-Safe technologies. The meat of today’s seminar was to be an open and frank…

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