Occupational health protection advances with times in China

Updated: May 17, 2024 Xinhua Print
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BEIJING -- There was once a time in China when occupational disease was synonymous with pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease, as it caused the largest number of reported cases in the country. But something has changed.

Over the past decade or so, the reported cases of occupational pneumoconiosis plummeted by a stunning 67 percent, a testament to China's disease prevention and workplace safety efforts.

By the end of 2022, China had a workforce of 880 million aged between 16 and 59, ranking the first in the world. Ensuring the protection of workers from occupational diseases and improving their health at work are crucial for a country dealing with an aging population.

China's national classification and catalogue of occupational diseases, which was put into effect in 2013, now include 132 diseases in 10 categories, most of which are respiratory and skin diseases.

Making the list longer has been widely anticipated, as the wider landscape of occupational health has evolved, with ailments such as neck and shoulder pain, and hair loss, becoming increasingly more prevalent in the modern workplace.

"Can cervical spondylosis and back pain be identified as occupational diseases?" People apt to these sufferings, mostly office workers who have to bend over their desks for hours per day, may soon have an answer.

The National Health Commission (NHC) said last month that it has organized the compilation of diagnosis standard for new occupational diseases, with many new additions to the national classification and catalogue already chosen.

"The risks of traditional occupation diseases have faded in recent years due to industrial upgrading and progress in combating the diseases, which has created possibility for updating the catalogue," said senior NHC official Wang Jiandong.

During the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025), the NHC initiated an occupational disease campaign, which focused on high-incidence factors, namely dust, chemical poison and noise. By 2022, data revealed, newly reported cases of occupational disease had already dropped by 40 percent from 2019.

Notably, between 2021 and 2023, some 830 rehabilitation stations spanning 28 provincial-level regions in China provided 1.2 million sessions of treatment for pneumoconiosis patients free of charge. More and more patients have been relieved of financial burdens thanks to supportive measures such as medical aid and treatment-fee reimbursement.

New employment situation also prompted the need to keep occupational health protection abreast with the times. In recent years, workers of new businesses, such as couriers, ride-hailing drivers and take-away delivery personnel, has greatly expanded to about 84 million in China. Some of these jobs feature time pressures and heavy workload.

"Having stayed in the car for about half of day, my legs are numb when I get off, and my waist also aches," said a veteran taxi driver surnamed Jiang from the city of Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province.

Zhang Meibian, an official with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, called for stepping up protection of this group by strengthening publicity, improving their work conditions and promoting related legislation.

In a survey about occupational disease that saw more than 1,300 respondents participate on China's social media platform Weibo, cervical spondylosis, dry eyes and insomnia topped the chart, followed by depression and hair loss.

"Every time I feel pressured, I would fall asleep harder," said Yang Jie, a programmer working at an IT company in Beijing. "It will surely be a boon if they can include diseases caused at work, no matter the severity, into the catalogue."

While suggesting enlarging the scope of occupational disease and raising public awareness of occupational health, experts have warned of the emergence of new factors that could inflict potential hazards on workers.

For example, the impact of chemical substances used in the new material industry, or hazards like viruses and bacteria in emerging industries such as biomedicine and gene editing, according to Ren Guoyou, a professor at China University of Labor Relations, noting the necessity to strengthen industrial supervision and strict law enforcement.

An occupational disease prevention plan for the period of 2021-2015 has raised demands and set goals for protecting occupational health in the new era.

By 2025, the workplace and working conditions will be further improved, supervision over employment and working hours will be more strict, and major occupational diseases including pneumoconiosis will be brought under control, according to the plan.

Observers also reminded that a balance should be sought when adjusting the occupational disease catalogue, as once a person is diagnosed with occupational disease, it would affect his or her reemployment in the future.

For employers, disease additions mean more duties and responsibilities, said observers, warning against putting too heavy burdens on employers in case some illnesses are directly identified as occupational diseases.

"The catalogue needs to remain stable while updated in a flexible and applicable way," Ren said.

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