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Workplace Diseases Threaten Workers

During a nationwide inspection conducted between August 2003 and March 2004, a total of 107 deaths caused by workplace-related illnesses were reported. Most were caused by dust and poisonous gases, including hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

A special working group of the State Council conducted the inspection. The team members came from various sectors, including health and insurance.

The inspection covered 218,000 enterprises in rural areas, including town-level factories and small private firms. More than half took no measures to prevent occupational diseases. More than 10 million workers were employed in the enterprises, with nearly 2 million working in high-risk jobs.

The results, released by the Ministry of Health, indicate that China's rural workers are in dire need of health protection.

About 1 million were given physical examinations; 3,773 had contracted some kind of work-related ailment.

Su Zhi, deputy department director of the Ministry of Health, said that the greatest problem is that most enterprises take no safety measures.

Moreover, regular health examinations, protective gear and health insurance could go a long way toward safeguarding the lives of the 130 million farmers--10 percent of the country's population--who work in urban areas, he said.

Often without insurance, workers who fall ill have difficulty obtaining compensation.

"In the near future, if enterprises don't help workers participate in the insurance system, they will be asked to pay for the workers' losses themselves," Su said.

In the past, it was very difficult for health authorities to tackle the issue of occupational illness. The situation looks set to change now, with the State Council directing various departments--including health, public security, labor and insurance--to work together on the issue.

At the end of 2003, there were about 450,000 pneumoconiosis patients in China. Also known as black lung disease, there is no treatment and in its disabling complicated form, progressive massive fibrosis, it may cause death.

Every year, more than 15,000 such lung disease patients are added to the list.

During the inspection, 117 people responsible for conditions at 66 hazardous workplaces were sent to court facing criminal charges.

Rapid industrialization over the past two decades has spawned more than 20 million township businesses. However, 60 percent of these businesses have only minimal occupational safety measures in place, according to a survey conducted by the Health Ministry last year.

(China Daily May 18, 2004)

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