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Workplace diseases threat to rural workers
By Zhang Feng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-18 00:00

Most rural residents who work in the country's rural enterprises or private firms in towns receive no protection or training to prevent workplace diseases.

Only 0.3 per cent of those workers who have contracted workplace related illnesses have been tested, experts say.

During a nationwide campaign between August, 2003 and March, 2004, a total of 107 deaths caused by workplace related illness were reported. Most were caused by dust and suffocating poisonous gases including hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide.

The campaign was undertaken by a special working group of the State Council made up of various departments, including health and insurance officials.

The campaign covered 218,000 enterprises in rural areas, including town-level factories and small private firms. More than half took no measures to prevent workplace diseases.

The results, released by the Ministry of Health recently, shows China's rural workers are in dire need of health protection.

The campaign covered more than 10 million workers. Of those, nearly 2 million work in potentially dangerous businesses.

About 1 million were given physical checkups and 3,773 had infected with some form of workplace related diseases.

The problem, said Su Zhi, deputy department director of the Ministry of Health, is that most enterprises take no protection measures.

Regular health examinations, protection equipment and health insurance could go a long way towards safeguarding the lives of the 130 million farmers -- 10 per cent of the country's population -- who work in urban areas, he said.

What's more, often without insurance, workers who do fall ill have a very difficult time getting compensation.

"In the near future, if enterprises don't help workers to participate in the insurance system, they will be asked to pay for the workers' losses themselves," Su said.

In the past, it was very difficult for health authorities to tackle the issue of workplace diseases.

The situation may change now, since the State Council asked various departments -- including health, public security, labour and insurance -- to work together on the issue.

In China at the end of 2003, there were about 450,000 pneumoconiosis patients, an incurable and deadly disease caused by dust that destroys the lungs.

And every year, more than 15,000 such lung disease patients are added.

During the campaign, 117 people connected to 66 hazardous workplaces cases were sent to court facing criminal charges.

Rapid industrialization over the past two decades has spawned more than 20 million township businesses.

However, 60 per cent of these businesses have only minimal industrial safety measures, according to a survey conducted by the Health Ministry last year.

One important reason for authorities to punish the employers who are responsible for workplace hazards is that workers often move between enterprises and don't have certain health records, said Li Tao, director of the Chinese Workplace Diseases Prevention and Control Centre.

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