China orders employers to keep health records of workers in hazardous positions

19 August 2011
In a potentially significant development in the fight against the occupational disease epidemic that is sweeping China, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) is requiring employers to keep health records of all their employees who are exposed to health hazards.

The records, which should show the results of health checks at the beginning of, during, and at the completion of employee contracts, could be used by workers as evidence in occupational disease compensation claims, the China Daily reported today.

China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang welcomed the SAWS directive, saying; “it is a positive move, one that shows the government is very much aware of the problem of occupational disease and is willing to listen to the views of civil society in trying to resolve it.”

The SAWS directive, issued on 5 August, aims to have health reports completed by at least 80 percent of all employers by 2015, and calls on local authorities to close down factories and mines in the wood, asbestos and quartz sand processing industries that do not meet safety standards.

The number of occupational disease cases diagnosed in 2010 increased by over 50 percent compared with the previous year to reach 27,240. The vast majority of these cases, between 80 and 90 percent, are of pneumoconiosis, the deadly lung disease that is now the number one killer of workers in China today. However, large numbers of pneumoconiosis victims find it almost impossible to get compensation because they lack the evidence linking the onset of the disease to their employment at a particular factory, construction site, quarry or mine. The SAWS requirements, if implemented, will at least give workers sufficient documentation to begin the compensation process.

Many commentators have pointed out however that while creating health records is a good first step, it is just one of a wide-range of measures that are needed both to prevent new cases of occupational disease and provide relief to the existing more than one million victims, most of whom have received only minimal, if any, compensation.

Labour expert Chang Kai was quoted by the China Daily as saying the Chinese government needed to take the lead in a wide-ranging campaign to improve health and safety and make it easier for workers to claim compensation. “Many workers who get sick or are injured do not know which government agency they should turn to. And those departments, when their help is sought out, sometimes shirk their responsibilities,” he said.

China Labour Bulletin’s 2010 research report, The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China, outlined a series of measures the government should adopt, including keeping records of employees in hazardous industries, aimed at improving the compensation process, better disease prevention, and heightening the role of the trade union in protecting workers’ rights, health and safety.
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