Hundreds of rescue workers, engineers and medical experts are at the site and the operation could take weeks

Blast happened days after authorities claimed a victory in reducing workplace accidents and deaths

China is hoping for a miracle as hundreds of rescuers try to reach 21 miners trapped underground in the east of the country after an explosion,

The blast on January 10 – days after authorities claimed a victory in reducing such accidents – trapped 22 men as they worked more than 600 metres underground at the Hushan gold mine in Qixia, Shandong.

One worker is

, while 11 are known to be alive and 10 are missing.

More than 600 rescuers, engineers, mechanics and medical experts are at the site and the team on Friday said it could take 15 days to reach the miners because their intended escape route was blocked.

The municipal government has said the accident was not reported to local authorities until 30 hours after it happened, causing a serious delay in the rescue effort.

, and food and medicine has been sent down to them via drilled channels. They also managed telephone contact.

The men have also sent two notes up, saying they were exhausted, that some were injured, and there was thick smoke and underground water where they were trapped, according to Chinese media reports. They asked for stomach medicine, painkillers, medical tape, external anti-inflammatory drugs and blood pressure medication.

“We hope the rescuers won’t stop so that we can still have hope. Thank you,” one of the notes said.

Chinese are closely watching the rescue effort. An update by state news agency Xinhua this week drew more than 3,600 comments on Weibo, with people saying they were praying for the miners and calling for the rescue to be sped up.

“I hope we can repeat the miracle of the San Jose mine accident,” one person commented on Weibo.

Thirty-three men were trapped 700 metres underground when the copper-gold mine in Chile collapsed in 2010 – and they survived for 69 days before they were rescued.

In China, mining accidents are common though authorities say safety has improved and they have declined significantly in the past two decades. There were 573 mining-related deaths last year – down from about 5,000 fatalities 20 years ago, according to the National Mine Safety Administration.

Workplace accidents and deaths across all industries fell by 15.5 per cent and 8.3 per cent, respectively, in 2020 from a year earlier, the Ministry of Emergency Management said on January 7, without giving figures. It said last year was one of the safest at workplaces in China, with accidents and deaths at record lows. The announcement came a month after

at a Chongqing coal mine.

Han Dongfang, director of worker rights advocacy group China Labour Bulletin, said the decrease in mining accidents was likely due to the closure of small mines, which usually had poorer safety records, and the use of imported coal, rather than an improvement in safety practices.

“From the work we’ve done in the past few years, talking to labour unions in China and trying to hold them accountable, our observation is that the workplace safety monitoring has not changed at all,” Han said. “One of the most important reasons for the drop in coal mining accidents is the reduction in coal production in China.”

Since 2014, China has been steadily closing coal mines with an annual production of less than 300,000 tonnes because of environmental and safety concerns. In 2019, the proportion of the national coal output produced by these mines fell to 5 per cent – down from 22 per cent in 2010, according to the mining safety watchdog.

has been calling for China’s notorious work safety record to be improved since 2013, emphasising that economic development should not be put ahead of people’s lives.

A revised workplace safety law has been submitted to the top legislature that stipulates mining companies should improve safety and working conditions, with harsher penalties for those that do not, or are slow to, comply.

Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the law revision, introducing accountability in the workplace, was particularly needed in high-risk industries such as mining.

“Now with the miners still trapped in Shandong, it becomes imperative to pass the law, raise public awareness of workplace safety, and hold relevant officials responsible for negligence or dangerous practices,” Zhu said.

“It is also encouraging that China is placing human lives above development, with President Xi Jinping pushing for it from the top. It is welcome progress that China is shifting away from focusing heavily on the growth rate to paying more attention to safety,” he said.

But Han said revising workplace safety legislation to include tougher penalties for those responsible for unsafe factories or mines was more about punishment after the fact than preventing accidents.

“Legal punishment for those who break the laws is necessary, but it is a moot point,” Han said.

“It is taken after the tragedy has happened, when people have died or been injured in accidents. Workplace safety should focus on preventing accidents from happening. Punishment alone cannot achieve this.”

He said labour unions in China should be empowered to take on more workplace safety monitoring and training for workers, as well as protection of their rights. Many mines are not covered by labour unions in China, and Han said even when there was a union many workers, including miners, were often unaware of it.

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