After years of relentlessly promoting growth in coal output through new mines and rehabilitation of old ones, the Chinese government now says it will tackle their dismal safety record.

More than 8,000 people died in pit accidents in 1990, according to official figures, 6,000 of them in smaller locally run mines. Many of these are, strictly speaking, illegal and have scant regard for safety.The worst single mining accident in China of the past 30 years occurred last May, though it was not reported for three weeks. An explosion in an underground mine in north-central Shanxi province killed the entire shift of 147 miners.

Investigators placed the blame for that disaster squarely on "long-term negligence." The Sanjiaohi mine "lacked even the most basic safety facilities" and 90 percent of its workers "did not have even an elementary knowledge of safety."

Li Peiyao, vice minister of labor, now says a comprehensive plan has been drafted to cut work-related death and injury by 3 percent to 5 percent a year over the next decade.

After the 1991 explosion, the Energy Ministry pledged to inspect all officially approved mines and to close those not meeting standards.

At a press briefing in Beijing, Mr. Li noted that China's mine death toll is falling steadily, though it remains well above that of other large producers. China cuts about 1 billion metric tons of coal a year, making it No. 1 in the world with about one-fifth of global output.

The death rate in state-run mines last year is officially given as one worker for every million tons of coal produced. That is a marked improvement

from nearly 14 deaths for every million tons in 1960 and continues a trend of improvement: 7.3 in 1970, 4.5 in 1980 and 1.4 in 1990.

By contrast, the rate in the United States and other developed countries is less than 0.5 deaths for every million tons.

Mr. Li said a national mining law will be enacted, perhaps late this year. It will pinpoint safety hazards, delineate precautions, enshrine workers' rights as well as responsibilities and mandate inspections.

In the case of the Shanxi pit, the ministry acknowledged there had been no regular inspections even after a similar explosion killed 30 workers in 1980. The investigation of that incident found the operation had no equipment to prevent coal dust filling the shafts.

Until the new law is ready, the government will "enforce strict safety requirements and give harsh penalties for official negligence leading to accidents," Mr. Li said. He did not say why a new law was needed if such enforcement is already supposedly in place.

Mr. Li did concede that safety will remain a cause for concern for some time. He said the industry is short of facilities, technology and finance and employs "substandard managers and miners."

Last month, a coal industry conference was told emphasis will be put on renovation of ventilation systems, fireproofing and escape procedures.

As with many Chinese statistics, it is hard to be certain of the reliability of the mine-death figures.

In a report in mid-1991, the official People's Daily newspaper said 80 people died and 23 were hurt in a 1990 pit fire in northeastern Heilongjiang. At the time, there was no mention of casualties.

In a breakdown of the figure of some 8,000 deaths in 1990, officials said

2,227 people died in state-run pits and 6,183 in non-state mines. There are about 100,000 of these, according to industry estimates here, some collectively run and others private.

In 1988, the government reported more than 4,000 mine deaths, a record, but did not say whether that was in all pits or just state-managed ones.