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Sunday, 12 March, 2000, 08:08 GMT
Ukraine's troubled mines
Lack of investment has left the industry near collapse
Ukraine has the world's highest coal industry death rate, with an average of about 300 deaths a year.

Funding cuts since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 have led to a neglect of safety concerns and forced the industry to struggle for survival.

Troubled mines
At least 120 have died so far this year
Nearly 320 died last year, including 81 in one accident
About 280 died in 1999, including 50 in one incident
In 1998, some 360 died - 63 in one methane explosion
About 260 died in 1997
Nearly 340 died in 1996
400,000 coal workers
More than 200 mines
Average wage: $100
Even in Soviet times, working practices were shoddy and safety standards low.

Underground explosions are common, often caused by methane - a naturally-occurring, colourless and odourless gas that builds up in poorly-ventilated shafts.

Other deaths have been caused by roof collapses or the breakdown of ventilation devices.

Equipment is outdated and often faulty - exposed wires can set off explosions, gas sensors and oxygen tanks do not work, and pit props are broken.

Mine elevators sometimes have rusty wheels, with old and wearing ropes.

In one of the country's worst disasters, an explosion in a mine killed 81 men in the Luhansk region, and three years ago, 63 men died in a Donetsk mine.

About 50 miners burnt to death in an explosion in the same region in May 1999.

Decaying industry

Anna Reid, a writer on the Ukraine, told the BBC that conditions in the mines were hot and steamy, and workers faced long walks underground to reach the coal face.

She said management was hopelessly irresponsible - and usually tried to shift the blame for any accidents onto the miners themselves.

Most mines are uneconomic - only 50 of more than 200 are viable, Ms Reid said.

The government is planning to shut down about 100 mines over the next few years.

Salaries are often paid late, sapping morale and discipline.

Each year, state subsidies are reduced and less equipment is replaced.

Ukraine has 400,000 coal workers and more than 200 mines, concentrated in the Donbass coal region in the east of the country.

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