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The world's most dangerous job: mining coal in China

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Forget "Deadliest Catch," the Discovery Channel show about the peril of being an Alaskan king crab fisherman. The most dangerous job in the world has to be mining coal in China. Last year alone, 4,746 miners were killed in China, according to state figures.

Stop and think about that for a second. That's about 1,100 more deaths than the U.S. military has incurred in five years of fighting in Iraq.

Which is why China is ecstatic over yesterday's rescue of 69 miners from a flooded coal shaft in Henan Province. The shaft, part of a 50 year-old state-owned mine, collapsed Tuesday afternoon when a torrent of more than 1 million gallons of water rushed into the mine after a rainstorm. The government said 102 miners were working at the time of the flood. Thirty-three escaped. The remaining trapped miners were kept alive thanks to hundreds of rescuers, who poured 145 gallons of milk down a 2,600-foot ventilation shaft over the course of three days while crews pumped out the mine and cleared tons of mud. 

It was a death-defying escape from the jaws of "development at any cost"—and a fate denied to far too many.

UPDATE: A reader writes in, "What on earth are you doing comparing gross number of deaths of Chinese miners to the number of Americans killed in Iraq? At least give us the denominator on the Chinese miners, otherwise the comparison is meaningless."

Just so there's no misunderstanding: I wasn't dissing American servicemen and women. Nor was I comparing apples to apples or trying to make a point that a coal shaft in Shanxian is more dangerous than a pillbox in Baghdad. Neither sounds like much fun to me.

So let's set the record straight. There are about 7 million miners in China. Our in house statistician tells me that, based on back-of-the-napkin calculations, you're about 8 times more likely to die as a U.S. soldier in Iraq than as a coal miner in China. I still don't want to sign up.

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