Occupational illnesses and injuries are costing China 100 billion yuan (US$12.5 billion) in direct losses every year, a senior health official has warned.
And the indirect costs could double the figure to US$25 billion, said Li Tao, head of the Occupational Health and Poisons Control Institute under China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The incidence of occupational diseases had become a serious public health issue affecting social stability, said the Workers' Daily on Sunday, which reported Li's call for stricter health and safety measures.
Li called for greater public awareness of the health of migrant workers and better monitoring of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Some local governments had long ignored the prevention and control of occupational diseases, while focusing on economic growth, resulting in poor supervision and law enforcement.
"Many projects were launched without an assessment of their impacts on occupational health and approval criteria were lowered in order to attract investment," Li said.
More than 30 industries were involved in occupational disease control. However, many enterprises, especially small and medium-sized firms, had few or no measures to protect workers' health.
Scientific research and education of occupational health in universities was getting weak and fewer scholars were interested in the subject. Most occupational healthcare institutes were located in big cities in the eastern regions.
These factors had led to a shortage of occupational health professionals and great disparities in care between the east and west, big and small cities, urban and rural regions, large and small enterprises, and fixed and migrant employees, Li said.
Twenty-six in-service provincial occupational healthcare institutes provided services to 218,000 enterprises with toxic and harmful production.
On average, every institute dealt with 8,385 enterprises and every occupational health professional serves 4,713 workers.
Employees in low-profit and township enterprises had no access to occupational healthcare, and rural workers in urban cities faced high risks of occupational illness due to their high mobility, Li said.
The number of migrant workers is estimated at 120 million and the workforce in rural enterprises amounts to 80 million, according to a recent report by the State Council.
By the end of 2005, China recorded 665,043 cases of occupational illness, including 606,891 cases of pneumoconiosis, a chronic disease of the lungs resulting from long-term inhalation of dust and primarily affecting miners, sandblasters and metal grinders.
Nearly 10,000 new cases of pneumoconiosis emerged each year. On average, each pneumoconiosis patient suffered an annual financial loss of 34,100 yuan (4,300 U.S. dollars), said Li.
"Based on the current total of pneumoconiosis patients in China, which is 440,000, the annual direct economic loss caused by the illness would exceed 14 billion yuan, and it's increasing by 600 million yuan with new cases each year," he warned.
According to Vice Health Minister Chen Xiaohong, workers contracting pneumoconiosis are getting younger, with an average age of 40 and the youngest patient just 20 years old in 2005. The shortest period between first contact with dust and showing symptoms was less than three months.
Most occupational illness patients, including pneumoconiosis victims, have been rural and migrant workers in coal mines, township enterprises or other work in harmful and toxic conditions.
The Ministry of Health is conducting a nationwide survey of the 200 million rural and migrant workers, and has vowed to provide basic occupational health services for them.
It would also set up a pilot network to improve reporting and monitoring of illnesses as the existing system was incomplete, said Su Zhi, deputy head of the ministry's supervision division.
He also suggested health files to be set up at migrant workers' hometowns, to which they usually returned during the traditional new year period, so that their state of health could be monitored.
The ministry and the State Administration of Work Safety are to jointly improve monitoring of occupational disease control and educate employers on the law and social responsibility.
In April, the two departments and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions awarded 56 enterprises with the accolade "State model enterprise for occupational health", and they are expected to share and publicize their experience with other enterprises.
(Xinhua News Agency July 17, 2006)