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Treating occupational disease
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-07-16 09:09

Occupational disease, a health problem caused by exposure to workplace health hazards, is taking enormous tolls, both human and economic, on the world's most populous country.

Every year, the direct economic loss caused by occupational disease or work-related injuries amounts to 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion), while the indirect loss stands at about 200 billion yuan (US$24 billion), Wang Dexue, vice minister of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), disclosed at a seminar in May.

Since China established an occupational disease reporting system in the 1950s, the number of patients suffering pneumoconiosis, a disease of the lungs caused by long exposure to mineral or metallic dust, has alone reached 580,000, of which 140,000 have already died.

Currently, 200 million Chinese people are at risk of occupational disease, most work in township industrial enterprises, said Chinese Vice Health Minister Chen Xiaohong at the same seminar.

Work-related illness has become a grave public health issue and social problem. Figuring out how to deal with it is of great urgency.

The incomplete prevention and treatment mechanism is to blame, experts say.

"The root problem with rampant occupational disease is our poor prevention mechanism," Wang Yi, spokesman of SAWS, China's top safety watchdog, was quoted as saying by China Business News.

China, therefore, should redouble efforts to improve its patchy occupational disease prevention mechanism, which, Wang said, is now on the government's agenda.

Only 20 per cent of workplaces that are prone to occupational disease have taken preventative measures, experts estimate.

During the planned-economy period, the staving off of occupational disease was taken on almost completely by the government, which mainly targeted workers in State-owned mines and manufacturing or processing industries.

As the country began to move towards a market economy in the early 1980s, the government's role was gradually transferred to enterprises, but many of them have lowered input into worker safety in order to reduce operating costs.

The problem is more acute in private and some joint ventures, where workplace accidents happen frequently.

The many fatal mine accidents in recent years, most of which have happened in small mines, are a solid testament to that fact.

Though China began to tackle the problem of occupational disease in the 1950s, it was conducted in an administrative manner until the late 1980s, when the Management Regulation on Silicosis, the first such regulation concerning occupational disease, was issued in 1989, forcing the management of occupational disease onto a legal track.

In May 2002, the law on occupational disease prevention, hailed by many experts as comprehensive legislation on work-related disease, came into effect.

But many enterprises have not abided by the law, which is considered to be a major factor behind China's grim occupational disease situation.

Speaking at a conference on work-related illness in March, Vice Health Minister Jiang Zuojun said that enterprises' failure to follow the law was the principal reason behind China's serious occupational disease problem.

Therefore, the government should step up efforts to ensure that laws and regulations concerning occupational disease are enforced.

"If the law on occupational disease were followed to the letter, many work-related tragedies would be avoided," Wang Yaozu, a veteran occupational disease prevention expert, was quoted by Oriental Outlook Weekly as saying.

The overlapping duties of different government bodies are a reason behind the lax law enforcement.

Two government bodies are directly involved in occupational disease prevention in China. They are the Ministry of Health and State Administration of Work Safety.

However, the 2002 law on occupational disease is unclear about how to assign duties between these two bodies.

For example, it fails to say which one should be responsible for monitoring the occupational disease issue, resulting in confusion among them.

But things have changed since January 2005, when the State Council, China's cabinet, issued a directive to define the roles of government agencies in occupational disease prevention.

According to the directive, the Ministry of Health is still responsible for the definition of work-related illness, while SAWS is in charge of occupational disease prevention, accident investigation and punishment, duties previously shouldered by health departments.

In addition, the All China Federation of Trade Unions will have a role, though indirectly, in this new division of duty.

Recording miners' archives, setting up trade unions and providing assistance to those plagued by occupational disease are the duties, among others, of the All China Federation of Trade Unions.

By clearly setting out specific responsibilities, the newly demarcated duties of related government bodies are expected to give occupational disease prevention a big boost in China.

But it's still an uphill struggle, some say, as it is difficult, even impossible, to eliminate occupational disease in some professions.

However, a well-functioning occupational disease prevention mechanism is an important and crucial step in winning that battle.

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