According to the National Bureau of Statistic of China, the death toll from work accidents amounted to 66,182 people in 2015. That’s over 10 times the number in the US and the UK combined.
In fact I would bet the number is much higher. I heard of many ‘accidents’ or suicides that happened in a factory setting and were not reported to the authorities. The boss often gives money to the family as a “compensation”.
But why are there so many accidents?
I like James Palmer’s take on this in his very good article, Cha Bu Duo! Close Enough…
Take the last year alone. You don’t have a proper cold-storage chain to send vaccines? Well, stick some ice in the parcels and put them in the post. Chabuduo, and children cough to death. Why take the sludge to a disposal site? Just pile it up here, where everyone else has been putting it. Chabuduo,and 91 people are crushed by a landslide in Guangdong. Separate out the dangerous materials? What does it matter, just stick that nitrate over there. Chabuduo, and a fireball goes up in Tianjin, north China’s chief port, incinerating 173 people.
‘There’s a Tianjin-level explosion every month,’ a staff member at a national-level work-safety programme told me, asking for anonymity. ‘But mostly they happen in places that nobody cares about.’ Careless disasters are buried all the time; when a chemical plant exploded in Tangshan in March 2014, a friend there told me of the management’s relief after the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing the next day, swallowing up all other news and making sure nobody but them noticed, save for 13 widows.
But the small deaths pile up: on construction sites where men wield blowtorches without safety goggles, or dangle from tied-together lengths of old rope; from food poisoning from meat carried in unrefrigerated vans; from fires in badly wired apartments. The toll grows every day, especially among the poor, unnoticed and unrecorded by the institutions supposedly guarding them.
Many Chinese cities are half building site; I’ve gone on walks through back alleys that resembled Super Mario levels, full of grinding wheels shooting out flurries of super-heated sparks, bricks dropped from scaffolding above without warning and cords strung across the pavement. ‘Why don’t you put tape around that?’ I asked at one spot, pointing to a guttering pit next to the road, deep enough to break a neck. The migrant workers shrugged. ‘Nobody told us to.’
Does China not care about this?
Yes the government takes it seriously. It is not their priority number 1 but they have taken steps.
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Work Safety and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases were announced in 2002.
China’s government has paid more attention on high-risk industries, especially mining, chemical production, and firework production. the problem is local governments — do they really enforce the law strictly? Not always.
Is the occupation health and safety (OHS) really improving in China?
The death toll is dropping steadily. Good. I believe the numbers are much higher than reported, but I also believe the trend goes in the right direction.
However, both chronic and acute occupational diseases are on the rise. One example is pneumoconiosis, which is now the biggest occupational disease reported in China (23,812 cases reported in 2010).
How to evaluate the safety standard of your Chinese suppliers?
Some foreign buyers pay for third-0party social compliance audits. However, they leave a lot to be desired.
As I wrote in What a Social Auditor Should Check in Chinese Factories:
Most Chinese manufacturers are really at the level of European and American factories one century ago in that respect, and that’s frightening. Now THAT’s something you probably want to check.
The main questions are:
- Are workers wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment)?
- Are there fire hazards? Is fire prevention taken seriously? (Several tragedies were reported in Bangladesh over the past few years, and I am surprised there are not more accidents of that nature in China.)
- Has factory management done something about the major sources of danger to employees?
The problem with audits is, they are purely compliance-based. Therefore the manufacturers become skilled at hiding non-conformities. And an auditor only has maybe 1 hour to devote to safety (their checklist usually covers working hours, forced labor, and many other topics). Real issues are seldom discovered.
Another approach that importers can follow is the Risk Assessment and Control. The idea is similar to risk and hazard analysis for product quality assurance but this time is all about the occupational safety and health at work.