The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) Tuesday ordered state-owned gold mines to take concrete measures to improve safety and curb emissions by August 2012 or face closure. Inspections of 41 gold mines by SAWS found “very severe” levels of harmful dust emissions which invariably cause pneumoconiosis and other fatal lung diseases.
Pneumoconiosis is by far the most prevalent occupational disease in China today accounting for around 90 percent of all new officially registered occupational disease cases. SAWS noted that mine owners’ blatant disregard for government safety regulations had led to an upsurge in the number of work-related illness cases in China, which in turn had fuelled discontent among the country’s miners.
Chinese government and trade union officials estimate that some 200 million workers are now at risk of occupational disease. More than 27,000 new occupational disease cases were registered last year, with probably tens of thousands more remaining undiagnosed.
The key problem for workers at risk of occupational disease in China is the failure of local governments to enforce national safety standards in high dust industries such as mining, quarrying and construction. A lack of resources and collusion with business owners means that local governments are unwilling or unable to effectively police dangerous and polluting enterprises.
Moreover, the majority of workers suffering from pneumoconiosis find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to claim compensation because they no longer work at the enterprise where they contracted the disease and cannot prove that they were previously employed at that enterprise.
SAWS last month announced new measures requiring employers to keep health records of all employees at risk of occupational disease. While this is a positive move that could help facilitate compensation claims, the onus still falls on local governments to ensure that employers comply with the requirements.
A conference on the prevention and relief of pneumoconiosis, held in Hong Kong last month, discussed more effective ways to both prevent new cases occurring and help existing sufferers, including the idea of making pneumoconiosis a de facto occupational disease, with victims automatically entitled to compensation from a government-administered fund.