China's State Administration of Work Safety said the coal mining death toll fell 15% last year, dipping below 100,000 fatalities for the first time in 14 years.

The official death toll for 2008 was 91,172 fatalities while the number of accidents dropped more than 10% to 506,000.

Zhao Tiechui, who supervises coal industry safety at the agency, attributed to the decline to government efforts to close down illegal coal mines and better law enforcement. He told China Daily that while coal production increased 7.5% to 2.72 billion tons, the number of accidents still fell significantly.

Luo Lin, the chief of the State Administration of Work Safety, noted that, despite the overall decline in accident and fatality numbers, the number of serious accidents lasts year increased more than 35%. He estimated that 707 lives were lost in 38 serious coal mine accidents, China Daily reported.

The Work Safety Administration closed 1,054 illegal mines and plans to shutter another 1,000 illegal mines this year.

Last year illegal mines produced 35% of the nation's coal, but accounted for 73% or 21,000 of the mining deaths, Luo said.

Coal mines often experience the most serious accidents because so many of them are operating illegally. The industry also sees the most frequent covering-up of accidents, Zhao said.  Luo estimated that almost 3,500 officials were investigated and 425 were arrest last year for negligence in relation to mining accidents.

Illegal production and cover-ups are still too frequent in the industry, and some local governments and corporations remain ignorant of their responsibilities with regard to work safety, Luo said.

This week China launched a Year of Work Safety, Luo said, with more measures to be launched this year to ensure accident rates continue to fall.