The Ministry of Health has called for stricter enforcement of a law aimed at preventing occupational health problems.
The call comes as the ministry is working to guarantee health services for the country's large working population.
The prevention law took effect in May 2002 to protect workers' health rights. But many people are still at risk of contracting occupational diseases, says Vice-Minister of Health Chen Xiaohong at a conference for provincial health officials yesterday.
He was quoted as saying: "Occupational health problems and work-related ailments are still taking huge tolls on China, both human and economic."
Such illnesses pose a potential threat to some 200 million Chinese people and cause 300 billion yuan (about $40 billion) of economic losses every year, according to statistics from the State Administration of Work Safety.
Chen added: "The experience of recent years shows that occupational diseases are more than a public health problem. They affect stability and harmony."
Disagreements between stricken workers and employers have resulted in an increasing number of public petitions and labor disputes in recent years.
Last year, unresolved medical disputes involving occupational diseases were the fifth most common form of public petition submitted to the Ministry of Health, explained Xue Xiaolin, a division director in charge of handling petitions at the ministry.
Some of the longer-running disputes have become mass incidents, severely undermining public security, Xue told China Daily.
And because of the long duration and strong passions involved, these occasionally violent mass incidents are getting harder to resolve, Xue said.
In the case of a violent incident in the southern boomtown of Huizhou, Guangdong Province, police were dispatched to break up a crowd of mostly migrant workers who had set fire to some police cars, Xue said.
"The workers involved said they wanted compensation for treatment for work-related diseases," Xue explained.
Chen says: "Chinese workers have a growing sense of their rights, but the extreme approach doesn't work and usually worsens the situation."
Local health administrations that recognize and diagnose work-caused health problems should strictly abide by the law and uphold people's rights, he said.
"Health officials must not be influenced by employers who want to evade responsibility," Chen said.
He added the government is considering paying for some medical fees. At present, either labor insurance or the employers themselves must cover the fees, but only if a contract is signed beforehand, according to the law.
（英语点津 Linda 编辑）
About the broadcaster:
Bernice Chan is a foreign expert at China Daily Website. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Bernice has written for newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and most recently worked as a broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, producing current affairs shows and documentaries.