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Although China has lagged western countries in enforcement of worker safety laws, the government is tightening its approach to workplace safety and multinational corporations are a major force driving safety changes, say several observers.
But a lack of professionals who can develop workplace safety standards and apply them nationwide, and inconsistent application of China's numerous labor laws and safety regulations remain shortcomings, the observers say.
For example, workplace safety regulations are frequently enforced in major cites, but employers in rural areas often overlook safety rules; local enforcement of regulations handed down by the central government is spotty, observers say.
Safety conditions in rural areas are shaped by economic underdevelopment, a lack of well-paying jobs and a willingness to place production goals ahead of safety, said Joseph Petrick, a professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who has written about workplace safety in China.
Such factors explain why a recent spike in mine-related deaths in China has drawn media attention, several sources agree.
Mines usually are in rural areas where local residents have gained the right to operate them as entrepreneurial enterprises, Mr. Petrick said. Those operators often favor revenue production over worker welfare, he said.
Additionally, safety has taken a back seat to expanding coal and other natural resource production in order to fuel power plants and China's rapid economic development, said Mr. Petrick, who has traveled to China to represent the Alexandria, Va. based Human Resource Certification Institute and its efforts to help China's human resource workers improve their professionalism.
"Although there are attempts to protect Chinese miners, the priority is on not interrupting the flow of energy and natural resources to keep development going," he said.
"There is some improvement (in safety), but there is quite a ways to go especially in the mining industry," Mr. Petrick added. "It remains a major area of occupation safety and health concern in China. At this stage, there is a lot that needs to be done."
According to China's State Administration of Work Safety, total workplace fatalities declined 11.2% in 2006 vs. 2005. However, fatal accidents involving mining, manufacturing, and commerce and trading rose 10.5% during the same period.
The size and diversity of China plays a large factor in the differences in safety standards throughout the country, said Choon Hong Lee, executive director of engineering and risk management for Asia in the Singapore office of Willis Group Holdings Ltd.
It is difficult to achieve consistency in safety practices across such a huge nation with great differences in levels of economic development, Mr. Lee said. In China, there is also a dearth of contractors knowledgeable about global safety standards, he said.
But China's government is taking greater interest in worker safety and is providing increased resources to develop rural areas. The application of safety laws is expected to accompany economic development in the countryside, Mr. Lee said.
In 2004, for example, China increased the compensation paid to each miner killed on the job to 200,000 Renminbi (about $24,000) from the previous 40,000 Renminbi (about $4,800), Mr. Lee said.
China also closed more than 5,000 coal mines considered to be unsafe in 2005, the Xinhua news agency reported.
Chinese media and government reports said some mining officials were fired and others were charged criminally for violations found at mines.
Among other measures, the Chinese government also has implemented stiffer penalties for workplace safety violations and required companies in high-hazard industries to form safety committees and hire safety engineers, Mr. Lee said.
Multinational corporations arriving in China are helping implement new safety standards and spreading a culture of safety, said James Johnston, a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers' International Practice Specialty.
"It's the multinationals that are really pushing the envelope," said Mr. Johnston who has traveled to China to evaluate safety procedures and is also a member of the ASSE's Practices and Standards Council.
It is impossible for multinational companies to maintain the product quality they desire if safety is absent from the production process, Mr. Johnston said.
"The multinational companies, as they put in more advanced technologies, they have had to step up to maintain production quality issues as well as health and safety," Mr. Johnston said. "Health and safety and quality issues are all in the same basket."
With recent steps to hold plant-level and regional executions more accountable for worker safety, "that is going to force them to have competent people that know how to run the facility," Mr. Johnston added.
But China still needs to build a cadre of professionals who can develop and oversee implementation of safety standards, Mr. Johnston said. Multinationals are trying to help, he said, by encouraging their established experts from other countries to help Chinese colleagues establish safety groups and organizations.
Companies from the United States are bringing their safety standards to their operations in China while also complying with Chinese regulations, agrees Helen Chang, a partner of in the Shanghai office of law firm Pinsent Masons.
Under China's regulations, a worker hurt on the job can visit doctors to determine how much time they may need away from work to recover, Ms. Chang said. Meanwhile a state social insurance program pays for their healthcare and they continue to receive wages.
There are other protections as well. For example, employers are forbidden from terminating workers with work-related injuries or illness, Ms. Chang said. There are even laws protecting employees with nonwork-related illness.
"In general, the labor and employment laws and regulations in China are pro-employee," Ms. Chang said.
But those laws haven't been consistently applied, Ms. Chang said.