Time for zero tolerance of workplace accidents

By Duan Kun (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-05-25 06:48

It is universally known that some jobs are more dangerous than others, and that's where effective laws should be in place to guarantee work safety.

Then why do we witness so many disastrous workplace accidents in China despite our set of laws and regulations regarding work safety and despite the central government's repeatedly urging scrupulous workplace security?

Obviously, there is deliberate ignorance of work safety. The recent cascade of workplace tragedies sounds the alarm once again that it is high time for us to have zero tolerance for lapses in oversight or deliberate negligence of workers' safety.

On May 5, a catastrophic mine explosion in Shanxi Province caused 28 deaths with two people missing. The previous month saw three incidents of workers killed by molten steel.

The first and deadliest one occurred in a metal works in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, in which a ladle holding 30 tons of liquid steel fell off a blast furnace, spilling molten steel onto the factory floor, killing 32 workers and injuring six.

Then again in Shaanxi Province and Chongqing Municipality, human lapses resulted in similar disasters.

All three incidents in April are attributed to poor equipment maintenance and lax work safety standards, according to the special investigation team of the State Council.

In other words, these incidents would be avoidable if equipment were maintained up to standard and regulations concerning work safety were carried out to the letter.

It is embarrassing to know that in coal production, according to the State Administration of Work Safety, the death toll for every million tons of coal in China is 2.041, more than 50 times that of the United States, the world's No 2 coal producer after China.

The main reason for the low death rate in the US is its strictly enforced workplace safety laws, which detail items regarding safety measures and regular checks.

China has similar laws for coal production safety. But the constant coal mine accidents point to the fact that the laws lack teeth. Coal mine owners deliberately ignore them and local officials fail to enforce them.

Although the central government has time and again emphasized people-centered development, some local officials remain obsessed with economic growth. They regard work accidents as the inevitable price paid for economic development. They fail to see that maximized profits at the cost of workers' safety can at best be short-lived and will eventually be offset by the loss of life.

These local officials' mindset can swell greedy businessmen's disregard of the law to seek profits at workers' peril. Some local officials even collude with coal mine or factory owners for personal gain, taking advantage of weak enforcement along with loopholes in the law.

The Shanxi coal mine where the May 5 explosion took place had actually been ordered to shut down because of safety problems. But the owner ignored the mandate and sent workers into the pit. The prime culprits should be obvious.

Unfortunately, those whose safety is at risk are not likely to use the law to protect themselves. Many coal miners are migrant workers from rural areas who are preoccupied with earning a living. They are not even aware of their rights or the basic requirements of workplace safety.

Added to this is public indifference. Workplace disasters seem to have become routine, losing their news value. The Liaoning incident which killed 32 initially received little media coverage. Then it was reported but void of details, squeezed in between other news briefs as just another workplace accident.

Are we numb to the dreadful routine reports of coal mine explosions, building collapses and chemical spills? If so, why did our media give such extensive coverage to the school shootings at Virginia Tech in the United States?

I could not understand why our media gave such imbalanced coverage to the two tragedies separated by just three days but worlds apart. Both claimed more than 30 lives, but the one in the distance got frenzied local coverage while the domestic disaster at first went nearly unnoticed.

People may argue that the Virginia Tech tragedy was more sensational with its horrendous terrorist nature. For the victims' families, however, the two incidents carry equal weight. Both are man-made disasters, tragedies that the families will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

This is certainly not about comparing death tolls or deciding which incident is worse. Rather, it's high time for each of us to give zero tolerance to workplace accidents that result from human misconduct. All work disasters should be regarded as intolerable as any terrorist act. Mass killings on purpose or by human lapses merit equal condemnation.

Can we avoid future workplace disasters? It depends on how resolute we are in scrupulously enforcing our safety regulations. It also depends on how deeply we value human well-being vis-a-vis economic gains.

Workplace safety concerns every member of society. A determined public with zero tolerance for workplace accidents will make a change. With a switch from numbness to care, the public can nudge the government and managers to tighten workplace safety.

Workplace safety is about lives that can be saved, disasters that can be avoided, human lapses that should and can be constrained, and a public conscience that can check any disregard of safety laws and regulations.

The author is a graduate student at Beijing Foreign Studies University

(China Daily 05/25/2007 page10)

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