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Workers sorely need a breath of fresh air
By Zhang Feng (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-04-20 06:20

Factory employees in China perhaps need a statutory warning along with their work contracts: "Breathing could be harmful to your health."

An international conference on occupational respiratory diseases in Beijing yesterday, which discussed ways and means to combat the danger, revealed the alarming threat: In 2001, the number of Chinese who suffered from a condition known as pneumoconiosis (which causes lung damage because of inhalation of toxic materials and dust) was the same as in the rest of the world - about 570,000, of which 140,000 have died.

Even more worrying is that these were diagnosed cases it is estimated that the actual figure could be as high as 10 times more in the country.

The main culprits are believed to be coal and other mines and cement plants, many of which are small-or-medium-sized private enterprises.

Compared with big State-owned factories, private employers do not spend much on tests and treatment for their workers, most of whom have no medical insurance.

But it was not just respiratory diseases that were the focus of the attention at the conference: China has identified 115 kinds of workplace diseases from which about 200 million workers in 16 million industrial units are affected.

Millions of farmers-turned-workers are among those with a high risk of contacting various workplace diseases, said Li Dehong, a top expert at the National Institute of Occupational Health and Poison Control.

Industries such as furniture, toy, shoe, electronics and luggage making also pose a threat to workers' health due to the dangerous chemical materials they use.

The materials, such as lead, benzene, manganese and mercury, can seriously damage workers' nervous systems, skin or eyes.

To make matters worse, companies which are barred from using certain chemicals and materials during the work process in their own countries do so in China.

For example, the rush-mat processing industry which makes tatamis used as floor coverings or mats in Japan has caused many pneumoconiosis cases among Chinese workers, especially in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province. Ningbo accounts for 70 per cent of the tatami mats sold in Japan where the manufacturing process is forbidden, said Li.

China has many laws and regulations related to labour protection, such as the Occupational Disease Prevention and Control Law passed in 2001. These regula-tions require employers to do preplacement, on-job, and pre-departure examination of their workers, said Su Zhi, vice-director of the Department of Health Law Enforcement and Inspection of the Ministry of Health.

Also, industries with occupational hazards should have strict safeguards in place but only a fifth of them have bothered to evaluate workplace threats, said Li.

The situation is mainly blamed on poor surveillance and lax enforcement of the law by the authorities; a lack of awareness of health protection; and poor co-ordination between different departments.

For instance, the health authorities require that companies pass workplace hazard evaluation tests before and during the work process; but other departments do not make it a precondition and give approval for establishment and operation, said Li.

(China Daily 04/20/2005 page2)

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