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China: Thousands Killed in Work-Related Accidents - 2003-07-25

In China, more than 60,000 people have been killed in work-related accidents in the first half of the year. Chinese officials say that is an improvement over last year, but admit they still have a long way to go to improve safety.

Chinese officials have announced the latest work safety figures for the first 6 months of 2003. The good news is fatalities were down nearly 7 percent from the same period last year. The bad news is that more than 60,000 people were killed.

About 80 percent of these deaths occurred in vehicle accidents, either on farm tractors or work-related driving.

State Administration of Work Safety Deputy Administrator Wang De Xue says a big reason for these accidents is rapid economic growth that means more vehicles being used. But he admitted driver training is poor and the government needs to correct the problem.

China's treacherous coal mines received special attention from reports at the official briefing.

Despite repeated government promises to clean up the industry, coal mine deaths only dropped by 1 percent to 2,800 since the beginning of the year. In comparison, 22 coal miners were killed in the United States last year.

Mr. Wang admitted that a lack of safety inspectors made it almost impossible to adequately enforce the Central Government's safety laws.

Mr. Wang says government supervision of mines is weak. Some rural counties have a few hundred small mines, but only two or three inspectors.

Dominique Muller, of the Hong-Kong based labor rights group China Labor Bulletin, says she believes the Chinese government genuinely wants to improve worker health and safety, but is taking the wrong approach.

"The government needs to do more than pass laws, pass provincial regulations and set up task forces. They need to involve the workers and they need to bring to justice employers that do kill workers through not implementing the laws that the Chinese government has actually set out," said Ms. Muller.

The Chinese government has stepped up efforts to punish negligent workplace managers. Early this year 72 of 87 workers were killed in a gas explosion at a mine in China's central Shanxi Province. In what Mr. Wang called a "reminder for the whole country," the owners of the mine were fined a record $2.6 million for their role in the accident.