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White-collar Casualties

Zhao Yang, a 33-year-old programmer in a software company, started visiting a massage clinic a year ago, after he noticed his left shoulder was almost numb after an eight-hour day of clicking on the keyboard and staring at the screen.

An office lady is receving a traditional Chinese massage to ease her mental and body pressure incured from heavy load of work.

Zhao was found to have omarthritis, an illness usually found among those above 50 years old.

Fearing that he would not be able to move his arm, which would probably mean losing his job, Zhao started to visit massage clinics when he has the time.

White-collar workers like Zhao, who are usually envied for their comfortable work environments and physically undemanding work styles, are increasingly vulnerable to work-related illnesses.

"I once joked with my co-workers that we are even less cared about than immigrant workers, as they can get compensation for occupational diseases," said Zhao. "But we can never claim for back strain and weakening eyesight, which are also results of work."

Categorically sick

Although it has been proposed in recent years that illnesses suffered by intellectual workers should also be categorized as occupational diseases by the law, the practice could take a long time being put into effect, if ever.

"Health problems suffered by office workers are called work-related illnesses, which are caused by adverse working conditions, such as 'computer syndrome' and mental depression due to job pressure," said Gu Yumin, a doctor at the Shanghai Occupational Disease Hospital. "In contrast, the category of 'occupational disease' is limited to those recognized by China's Law on Occupational Disease Prevention."

China' current Law on Occupational Disease Prevention was promulgated in 2001. According to the law, an occupational disease is defined as a disease resulting from exposure to harmful substances such as dust, radiation and poisons, while a worker is on the job.

The directory of occupational diseases now includes 115 kinds of diseases, divided into 10 categories, ranging from dust-related lung disease, radiation exposure and poisoning to tumors.

"The law is mainly aimed at helping manual workers seek medical treatment and compensation for workplace ailments," said Zhu Jun, doctor at the Occupational Health Division of the Shanghai Municipal Health Bureau.

"Most of the illnesses suffered by intellectual workers are not included in China's directory, yet they are posing great threats to office workers' health."

On an occupational disease list compiled by the World Health Organization, musculoskeletal diseases and mental disorders, which are common problems related to office work and heavy work pressure, rank in third and tenth position respectively.

In addition, research by the Beijing Disease Control Center reveals that the incidence of cardiovascular diseases among intellectual workers was twice as high as among manual laborers, the Beijing Evening News reported.

Existing difficulties

Experts say health problems such as musculoskeletal diseases and cardiovascular illnesses are also included in the list of occupational diseases in some developed countries, where office workers can also make claims for medical expenses and compensation once the diseases are determined to be work-related.

"But it will take years before China adopts the same practices, as the issue is closely related to the nation's economic development," said Liang Youxin, professor from the Public Health School of Fudan University.

Government departments should not only establish diagnostic standards for every occupational disease, but also monitor working conditions and provide legal and medical services to patients. "It's meaningless to increase the list of occupational diseases if the government cannot afford to establish the relevant systems to stem the disease," Liang said.

Actually, China has revised its directory of occupational disease three times, and expanded the directory from 14 in 1957 to 99 in 1988 and then 155 in 2002.

Liang also pointed to the difficultly of determining whether a disease is completely job-related as another obstacle to classifying the suffering of office workers as occupational diseases.

"Unlike poisonous substances which can be measured precisely, most factors contributing to office-related disease are not measurable," said Liang, adding that studies in this field in China had already begun.

(Shanghai Star May 31, 2005)

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