Of all the statistics the central government has compiled about the ever-growing coal mining industry, the most eye-opening involves safety: China produces 35 per cent of the world's coal, yet it has 80 per cent of the fatal accidents. It is a figure the mainland's safety agencies are struggling to come to grips with. Despite millions of dollars being poured into safety equipment and training schemes, the yearly accident death toll is not falling significantly. With coal, the lifeblood of China's surging economic growth, accounting for 66 per cent of energy production, concern about improving the industry goes right to the top echelons of government. Production jumped to 1.9 billion tonnes last year, up 10 per cent from 2003 and dwarfing the 929 million tonnes mined in 2001. But the search for coal has a price. Last year 6,027 coal miners were killed, a drop of 407 deaths or 6.3 per cent on 2003, but comparable with the state of England's coal industry a century ago. In addition to that figure there are an untold number, perhaps thousands, who die each year from debilitating diseases caused by working in the mines. Official pressure for improved safety has risen significantly in recent weeks after the deaths in January of 214 miners in an explosion in northeastern Liaoning province's Fuxin city. It was the worst disaster since the founding of modern China in 1949. Two months earlier, an accident in northern Henan province claimed 166 lives. On February 11, a day after 10 more miners were killed in a gas leak at a mine in the municipality of Chongqing, Sichuan province, the deputy director of the State Administration of Work Safety (Saws), Liang Jiakun, announced this year's goal was to reduce fatalities by another 3 per cent. 'We will also try to eliminate any single coal mine accident causing 100 fatalities or more,' he said. Premier Wen Jiabao joined other leaders in pledging more high-level attention to work safety. Analysts said last week that such calls would do little to bring standards up to anywhere near those in other major coal-producing nations. The scale of the task was highlighted by official media, which questioned the low productivity of China's miners and the many fatalities compared with other coal-producing nations. Reports said the average mainland miner produced 321 tonnes of coal - just 2.2 per cent of what a miner in the highly mechanised US produced and 8.1 per cent of a miner in South Africa. But Chinese mines had a 100-times greater death toll than in the US and 30 times that of South Africa. City University of Hong Kong researcher of Chinese labour issues, Stephen Frost, believed there was a genuine will on the mainland to drastically cut the toll, although efforts were complicated by systems in place. The country's first safety laws were created in October 2002, and a nationwide campaign was launched that included the appointment of workplace inspectors. 'There are six bodies of laws, starting with those on coal mining down to the implementable regulations,' Dr Frost said. 'It's all there - there are some loopholes as with any law, and tweaking might fix those, but that's not the problem. 'The problem is not the law, but how the law is got down to the ground and working.' He said that despite the desire for change within Saws and other departments, there was a feeling that the necessary support was not coming from the top levels of government. But Dr Frost and other experts stressed that a solution was not clear-cut and China's mining industry was complex. Drawing comparisons with other countries and implementing their rules and regulations was not necessarily a viable approach. British consultant Dave Feickert, a regular visitor to China and a former official with the Trades Union Congress, said the mainland's problem was vast. With little of its own oil and gas, but large coal reserves to meet rising energy demands, China's cheapest and quickest energy solution was mining. Nuclear reactors are not a viable alternative. Four reactors are being built which, when added to the nine already operating, will only account for four per cent of China's energy needs. Mr Feickert said that while mining fatalities in China were similar to those of England in the early 1900s, the nature of the Chinese industry was more complex. 'The British industry was not particularly developed, but in China in the state sector, the big mines are highly mechanised and have mining equipment which is of technology equivalent to that being used in Australia, the US and Europe,' he said. 'Despite that, they have high accident rates. The municipal or city owned mines are smaller and have an even higher accident rate. Then there are village mines, essentially privately owned holes in the ground. They are rudimentary and accident rates in them are very high.' United Mine Workers of America health and safety administrator, Dennis O'Dell, said the lack of an independent trade union was an important issue that needed to be considered by mainland officials. China's trade union is government-organised. Mr O'Dell claimed his union, formed in 1890, had been instrumental in enacting laws that resulted in a major fall in the number of mining accidents. Whereas the yearly death toll had been in the hundreds during the 1960s, between 30 and 40 of the 90,000 coal miners in the US now died annually in accidents. The last major coal mine accident in the US was in 2001, when 13 miners were killed in Alabama. 'It's very important that organised labour plays a role,' he said. 'They need that in China right now and they could have the same benefits based on what we've done in the US to be able to establish rules and regulations that govern mine safety and health. Organised labour is a vital tool.' For American and Canadian miners, that means a strict set of safety and health rules. Mr O'Dell said the union had field staff in areas where all coal mines were located. Coal miners trained at the National Mine Academy made daily safety reports to mine operators and any problems detected were discussed and hopefully, resolved. If this did not happen, union officials were called in and if the issue was still unresolved, the government-run US Mine Safety and Health Administration was called in. But US Mine Safety and Health Administration deputy assistant secretary, John Correll, did not believe that organised labour was as essential an element of safety as building the right culture. He stressed that most mines in the US operated on non-union labour. 'Preservation of individual safety rights is a philosophy and culture that has occurred in our country over the last several years,' the Washington-based official said. 'Whether union or non-union, miners in this country really believe that they have an individual right to withdraw themselves if they feel that there is an unusual hazard that's not being controlled or contained. In China, we've not seen that - if a miner sees a hazard or imminent danger, he asks himself what he can do about it. It's a philosophical issue that is being looked at.' The administration is among several foreign entities helping teach Chinese officials about mine safety methods, organisation and techniques. Its US$2.3 million programme begins in summer and teaches safety and health to officials at three levels. Chinese officials have also taken courses at the National Mine Academy in West Virginia. Australia's government is also helping through its Safety in Mines Testing and Research Station. Relations have been forged with the China Coal Research Institute, which has purchased 18 high-speed gas analysis systems. The institute plans to eventually have 100 mobile systems to enable easier detection of gas leaks in mines, the main cause of fatal explosions. Mr Feickert said that although such technology was essential, putting prevention systems in place was as necessary. 'Unless that system is there and people are constantly trained and retrained, then there will be problems,' he said. If China did not succeed in making its coal industry safer and more productive, it would need to import more oil and the rest of the world would suffer through higher prices. 'China's safety officials know what the problem is, but haven't yet arrived at the combined solution,' Mr Feickert said. 'On the positive side, there is a lot of international effort to help them get through, but it's an enormous challenge because the industry is so large and variable, and crucial to the economy.'