Occupational Illness on the Rise in China

Over 13,000 cases of occupational illness reported in China last year are attributed to employers failing to obey safety regulations and a lack of personal protective equipment.

Occupational illnesses are increasing in China, with officials blaming the rise on unsafe working conditions and the failure of employers to obey occupational health and safety regulations.

The Chinese Ministry of Health (MOH) received reports of 13,218 cases of occupational diseases nationwide last year, an increase of 13 percent since 2000. Some 2,352 people died of occupational illness in 2000.

Su Zhi, a MOH official in charge of law implementation and supervision, said that in reality, the number of cases of occupational illness is probably much higher. Many cases go unreported or the reports given to the government are incomplete, according to Su. For example, fewer than 30 percent of workers who are exposed to dusty work environments receive routine health care or have been checked for pneumoconiosis, according to Su.

Pneumoconiosis is a chronic, deadly lung disease caused by inhaling dust or small particles. Along with chemical exposure and leukemia, it is one of the leading causes of deaths due to occupational illness among China''s working population of 700 million people. So many working people, paired with a disregard for regulations, adds up to a tremendous number of illnesses, injuries and deaths. Between January 2001 and October 2001, 860,000 accidents were reported, with nearly 100,000 work-related fatalities resulting.

Su said that part of the problem is that rapid industrialization over the past 20 years produced more than 20 million small businesses. A recent MOH survey found that 60 percent of those businesses do not meet government safety standards.

The Chinese government says that workers in coal production, metallurgy, construction, nonferrous metals, machinery and chemicals report the greatest number of occupational illnesses.

A national law that provides workers with legal aid if their right to work in a safe environment is violated by employers goes into effect on May 1, which should reduce the number of occupational illnesses and injuries, said Su.

Another problem, say Chinese officials, is that companies in China are unable to manufacture enough safety equipment like eyewear, respirators, protective clothing and hearing protection. "The frequent occurrence of these big accidents is directly attributable to China''s lagging safety product industry," said Ma Jianqing, director of the Shanghai Production Safety Inspection Bureau.

Manufacturers of safety equipment that are familiar to American and Canadian workers, such as Uvex, Kappler and BW, are shipping products to China to help meet the demand for safety products in that country. The market is estimated at $2.41 billion.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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