Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Accident Prone Period

Last month’s high-speed rail crash was a wake-up call for officials. An emphasis on prevention will be far more effective – and much cheaper.

The Wenzhou high-speed train crash last month was a seminal moment for China’s development. Indeed, while too often the doctrine that had been followed was ‘faster is better,’ we’re now likely to increasingly see such thinking set aside in favour of ‘better is faster.’

China’s health and safety body, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), has rightly been given the responsibility for undertaking a complete assessment of the high-speed rail system. From an international viewpoint, this is part of a more appropriate government response than what was seen in the first few days after the crash from the Railway Ministry. Given SAWS’ experience with other high-risk industries, their investigation can be expected to be thorough. But the complexity of the new High Speed Train (HST) system is such that a medium-term risk assessment will be necessary.

The SAWS approach will begin with the analysis made by its former minister, Li Yizhong, a few years ago. He calculated that China was in the middle of its ‘accident prone’ period, similar to that passed through in turn by Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan. The period for each country was shorter than for the country before, prompting Li to ask how short China could make its accident prone period.

Certainly, China has shown the world that it can deal effectively with natural calamities such as the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and major industrial accidents like the Wangjialing mine flooding last year. The country has extremely well-organized rescue services and a ‘save the day’ leadership mindset that goes to great lengths to recover as many as possible. Excellent as this may be, though, risk assessment and prevention strategies are still weak, especially in high-risk industries.

The State Council itself recognized this when in July last year it published a set of detailed instructions for such industries. These required all plants and mines in these industries to carry out monthly risk assessments, not just risk assessments for new projects, as well as other critical work. It’s clear now that the railways should be included.

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Modern risk assessment such as that practised in the EU and Australia involves the entire workforce, something that China is now developing at the level of whole industries, including the coal industry, where 100,000 worker safety inspectors have been appointed. The question now is how best to ensure that their roles are properly defined and that they are given the training that they require.

In China’s notoriously accident prone coal industry, safety policies have already had an impact, with official fatal accident rates coming down from a very high 6,995 in 2002, to below a projected 2,400 this year. This is despite a threefold increase in coal output, meaning that the death rate has plunged by about 80 percent. There’s still a long way to go for the industry as a whole, but some modern mines are now as good as their international counterparts.

The cost of prevention of accidents is anyway much cheaper than the final cost of a disaster. For example, in Australia one mining fatality can cost a coal company between A$3 million to $10 million (US$3.3 million to 11 million), made up from a compensation claim of $750,000, a fine of $300,000 to $1,300,000, in addition to lost production. In New Zealand, the Pike River mine explosion last November, which killed 29 miners, has already cost $11 million in recovery attempts, will cost over $8 million for the public inquiry, tens of millions to support the families of the victims and will cost more than $100 million to recover the mine, if that’s even possible.

China doesn’t yet have a unified compensation and rehabilitation system, with much left to local government. Provincial governments have begun to act, as did Shanxi over coal mine fatalities in 2005 when it raised compensation for families to 200,000 yuan ($31,020).

In many developed countries, compensation is largely determined by the courts, as victims and their families sue the responsible operator. This can lead to massive pay out, as is often the case in the United States.

But a better approach is to adopt a no-fault system, as has been tried here in New Zealand since 1974. All accident victims receive loss of income payments and a lump sum goes to the families if someone is killed – at work, on the roads or on a mountain. Some might think that such a scheme would be too expensive for China, yet in New Zealand it has been shown to be both cheaper and fairer than the litigation system it replaced.

Wenzhou was a terrible tragedy, but there are many things that can also be learned that will allow China to move forward. There’s no reason why the HST system can’t achieve a high level of safety as well as efficient convenience – the country will just need to take its time.

David Feickert is a coal mine safety adviser and China Friendship Prize winner in 2009 for his work on coal mine safety.