If the state has a legitimate role between boss and worker, it is in industrial safety. History shows this is especially the case during rapid economic development. Workplace safety tends to be a casualty of industrialisation because of disregard for the law at the local level. China is no exception, as we are reminded by the latest disaster in accident-prone Linfen, Shanxi province. At least 128 people died when a waste reservoir at an iron ore mine burst its banks, releasing a wall of mud and rocks that engulfed part of the small town of Taoshi. An unknown number of people are still missing following the disaster. Hopes that they survived have been all but abandoned. Our first thoughts are with those who wait helplessly for news of loved ones. But the question of how an industrial accident could physically devastate a community calls for urgent answers. Torrential rain in a usually dry area apparently precipitated the dam's collapse, but this does not account for what happened. Officials have released some facts that reveal elementary safety issues. The mining enterprise was operating illegally and had filled the waste reservoir beyond its capacity. As a result, police have detained the mine owner and eight company officials, and county officials have sacked the Taoshi party secretary, mayor and two work-safety officials. This state of affairs could not have arisen without official indifference to the law or a blind eye to lack of compliance with it. Reports carried by Xinhua leave little doubt, citing lax work safety supervision and a failure to deal with hidden dangers. Moreover, the mining industry in Linfen has an appalling safety record, with four gas explosions having killed 185 people over the past 15 months. That is not because of lack of emphasis on safety by the central government. It has introduced stringent regulations aimed an improving the country's safety record, especially in the mining sector, where accidents last year killed nearly 3,800 people. But clearly it has not succeeded in imposing its will at the local level. Officials still collude with the operators of unsafe or poorly managed enterprises to frustrate efforts to improve safety, often for financial benefit. Some misguidedly put local development first, but others accept bribes or a silent stake in the business. Such a man-made disaster is an embarrassment to Beijing while it still basks in acclaim for staging a successful Olympic Games. Industrial accidents threaten to remain a stain on China's record long after memories of the Olympics have faded. Economic development and widening prosperity remain the prime national goals. But workplace safety is a measure of true progress in improving people's lives. A senior official has said it could take China 10 to 15 years to compare with Britain, the US and Japan, which took 70, 60 and 26 years respectively to cut industrial accidents to acceptable levels. It should aim to do better. The lesson of the latest disaster in Linfen is that the resolve that united the country behind the Olympic dream is needed to get an unambiguous safety message through local cadres to every workplace.