China says its notoriously dangerous coal mines are becoming safer. Officials have reported a more than 12 percent drop in the number of deaths in coal-mine accidents. However, the overall number of workplace deaths in China remains high.

The Chinese government says 7,311 people died while working in mines and factories in the first six months of the year. On average, that is 40 deaths a day.

Wang Dexue, deputy administrator of China's State Administration of Work Safety, says nearly 13 percent fewer people died in mines and factories in the first half of this year, compared with the same period a year ago. "The number of exceptionally serious accidents declined, and the work safety situation of industrial, mining, and commercial trading enterprises and of coal mines, in particular, showed steady improvement," he says.

The government attributes the drop in coal mine deaths to an aggressive campaign to boost fire safety, increase inspections, and shut down unsafe mines. The campaign has benefited state-run mines, but observers say it has largely failed to reach private, illegal mines in remote areas where a large number of the deaths occur.

Robin Munro is with the China Labor Bulletin, an organization in Hong Kong that monitors workers' issues in China. He says that while the central government may want to improve worker safety, corrupt local authorities makes it difficult to enforce regulations. "Very often, these businessmen who've taken on the running of private coal mines have a very cozy relationship with local government officials," says Mr. Munro. "They are friends or business colleagues, and the local government is often getting a cut of the profits of these mines."

Observers say conditions in privately owned mines remain largely unmonitored, suggesting the death toll may be higher than officials report.

Statistics on worker safety are highly guarded in China and are only released a few times a year. Documents obtained by human rights advocates show the government regards data on occupational issues and industrial accidents as state secrets. Mr. Munro says this practice makes him suspect the accuracy of the statistics that officials do release.

"When the government in Beijing is labeling issues like the number of industrial accidents that occur each year as a state secret, I'm afraid it's very hard to trust the statistics on these matters that the government does, in the fullness of time, decide that it wants to make public," says Mr. Munro.

While officials reported a drop in the number of work-place deaths, they said China's roads are becoming more dangerous. Traffic fatalities rose by 2.4 percent to more than 49,000 in the first half of the year.