China faces 'uphill battle' on safety
BEIJING, China -- Despite several high profile disasters, the death toll in Chinese industrial accidents fell by 30 percent last year, state media has reported.
Nonetheless officials admit the country faces "an uphill battle" to improve the still appalling safety record.
According to the English Language China Daily, statistics released by the central government Wednesday say total industrial accidents fell by just under a third while catastrophes involving a death toll higher than 10 fell by 22 percent.
The paper quoted safety officials as saying the drop was party due to the closure of some 237,000 illegal factories and firework producers.
In the field of coal mining, one of the most lethal of China's industrial professions, official records show 5,395 people died in accidents in 2001 -- 403 less than in the year 2000.
However, some observers say government figures only represent reported deaths and do not include fatalities that are not notified to the authorities by operators of illegal mining operations who fear prosecution.
Call for action
Independent analysts say the real mining death toll each year is closer to 10,000, but officials cover up many deaths in an effort to keep mines open and avoid fines.
The drop in mining deaths has also been overshadowed by a poor start for 2002, which has already seen 50 miners killed in three separate accidents within the space of just a few days.
"This indicates that an uphill battle to improve work safety still awaits us," the China Daily quotes Zhang Baomin, General Director of the State Administration of Work Safety, as saying.
Speaking during a two-day work safety conference in Beijing, Zhang urged government officials at all levels to take firm action in tightening up safety standards over the coming year.
By doing this, he said, social stability will be maintained and economic development promoted.
"Coal mines, especially those with small production capabilities, have always been my worry," Zhang told the conference, adding that the chemical, fireworks and mining industries would be the focus of government monitoring efforts in the coming months.
He said safety was even more important to guarantee a sound investment environment now China is a member of the World Trade Organization.
In one of the most shocking accidents last year at least 37 children and four teachers were killed when a massive explosion demolished a school in the eastern Chinese province if Jiangxi.
It later emerged that the school had been using pupils as young as eight years old to manufacture fireworks.
China's central government has passed several laws in recent months designed to bring down the country's horrific industrial death toll, but lax enforcement and corruption among local officials has meant they have had little impact.
Thousands of poorly managed coal mines, for example, have been ordered to close.
But with China's insatiable appetite for energy and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of labor willing to take the risk in exchange for a wage, many of them have since reopened.
Addressing the Beijing conference Zhang said the government would pursue the toughest punishment against those owners and operators found to be responsible for workplace accidents.
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