Employers in China must do more to prevent occupational diseases, according to a national law expected to be issued by the end of this year.
When any employer opens a factory in China, occupational health facilities should be constructed as well, the draft law says.
"The law on prevention and control of occupational diseases focuses on protecting workers' health rights," said Su Zhi, a division chief of the Department of Law and Supervision of the Ministry of Health and a co-author of the law.
In recent years, an increasing number of acute workplace poisoning accidents have been reported, especially in small and medium-sized township enterprises where many farmers are employed.
Cases of acute poisoning in township firms reached almost 36 percent in 1999, according to official statistics.
The exact figure on poisoning cases over the past two years are not available, but a survey of the ministry showed several thousands of people have been poisoned and several hundreds die each year.
"According to the law, employers who cause the poisoning accidents will be asked to pay for victims and will be punished," Su added.
In South China's Guangdong Province, for example, many private firms fire workers who are poisoned before they discover their illnesses and hire new people to avoid paying for their workers' injuries.
To fight against this criminal activity, Su said, the ministry will set up a health record this year for all workers. Firms must regularly do health examination for workers with the help of legal occupational disease control centers.
The records will follow the worker from job to job so that when a poisoned worker's disease is found, health administrators can figure out when it was acquired.
As China opened itself up to the outside world, dangerous industries that were shut down in developed countries came here.
Foreign-invested firms accounted for more than 14 percent of all on-the-job poisoning incidents in 1999, official statistics said.
"Certainly, branches of many multinational companies also have set a good example in worker's health protection, which is laudably and recommendable in China," Su said.
He urged foreign investors to study China's new laws on worker safety before they invest in China.
The draft of the law has been sent to the State Council.
Li Jinwu, official with the council's legal office, indicated the council is discussing the draft before giving it to the National People's Congress, the top legislature, for final approval.
Present laws on occupational disease prevention, all of which were written more than three decades ago, are outdated.
He also warned that the western regions of China are especially at risk of poisoning accidents.
Yet Su acknowledged it is a heavy burden for the firms to bear all the cost caused by poisoning accidents.
The new law would call upon firms to entice insurance companies to share the burden.
"This does not mean that firms can do nothing in occupational disease prevention, which should be regarded as one of the top priorities in their businesses," Su noted.
(China Daily 02/23/2001）