Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How does health, safety and workers’ comp measure up in China?

The digital display registered 431 km/hour. The Shanghai landscape flashed by the window of the worlds’ only Magnetic Levitation (Mag Lev) commuter train. Safe, fast, economical—the MagLev is emblematic of the “new” China and of the inherent consideration for occupational health and safety that is essential to its design, construction and operation.

For any observer sensitive to safety, China offers ample opportunity to examine safety systems as they apply to old technology, massive urban renewal projects, and advanced technological installation such as the MagLev . There are obvious similarities and striking differences in safety protocols and standards from what we see in the West. Whether observing a construction projects in the growing hospitality sector in the rice-terraced hills of Longji (Guilin) or in the inner precincts of the walled city of Xi’an, practices that protect workers from harm are inherent in the processes and procedures.

Watching a welder on a new high rise in Shanghai, I could see virtually no differences in the protections evident from those I have seen in any western metropolis. The worker, his equipment and the safety environment around him were equivalent to what I have seen in Vancouver, Melbourne and New York. I noted many co-workers wearing hardhats (all with engaged chin straps) working behind guardrails floor after floor, in much the same way observed in Western centres.

In the mountainous rice terraces of Longji, a lone construction worker in soft shoes and no hard hat was slowly, methodically, building a brick wall between concrete pillars of a third floor of a cliff-topping guest house. Clearly, not what might be seen adhering to western safety standards; yet, when I speak with the locals (many have some English in part because of the tourism in the area), they report few injuries. Without personal protective gear like hardhats and steel toed boots, workers carry out complex tasks without excessive injuries. How can this be? When I asked one local engineer why injuries were not more common, he attributed the relative safety he observed to “the Chinese way of doing things”.

There is a tendency to confer the qualifier of “safe” on the visible protections observed in a workplace. Hard hats, fall arrest systems, safety googles are obvious examples. Such apparatus, however, are but one layer of protection. The barriers or safeguards that protect workers from the inherent active and latent hazards in the workplace are not always as visible as personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, much of what I observed in China was extremely patterned work. Many buildings were not unique. The design and methods used to create them were very standardized. Many of the workers were evidently very experienced. In essence, one observed experienced workers, building nearly identical structures with the time-proven methods. These “systems” of doing things embody worker protections in the designs, work procedures and shared culture.

Workplaces around the world rely on these less visible, less “prescribed” worker protections. Barriers, safeguards and defenses that protect workers extend well beyond the visible personal (and most immediate level) of PPE; one can see safety in the design, work processes, supervision and training (and experience). Are these enough? Probably not…in China or anywhere else; in China as in the West, all work generates hazards to workers. The challenge is the same in every workplace: managing the risks and reducing the frequency and magnitude of the defects in the barriers, safeguards and defenses that protect workers from occupational injury and disease.

Work-related injuries occur in China as they do in the West, so security in form of compensation and rehabilitation are also needed. According to the ILO, China has effective employment-injury coverage for about 22.5% of the labour force (World Social Protection Report 2014/15 ). This is low by European , Australian and North American standards but this is double what it was about a decade ago. And the mandated coverage provides innovative incentives toward safety and prevention. For certain degrees of disability, the accident employer must provide suitable employment –something like the mandatory reinstatement provisions present in some workers’ compensation legislation. The Chinese solution, however, goes further. It anticipates that reinstatement may not be possible so mandates the employer pay a pension equal to 60 per cent or more of the monthly net income of the injured worker.

Challenges still exist, of course. Demographic, political, economic and environmental challenges will continue to test China’s people and leadership. The care and protection of the most vulnerable in the labour force and society must continue to be a priority in China as they are with other nations.
That said, China is changing. Its economy continues to lead the global recovery. Its technological advances are often leapfrogging the incremental paths other nations have taken. Hopefully, the safety and health of workers as well as their care and support after injury will continue to be part of China’s agenda.

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