Occupational diseases on the rise in Vietnam: ILO

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Rescuers work at the site of the collapse of a stone quarry in Nghe An Province on April 1, 2011 where twelve people were killed and five others were injured. Rock quarries in Vietnam are not only infamous for deadly work accidents, but are also responsible for an alarming rate of occupational diseases, the International Labor Organization says. Photo: Reuters

Dang Quoc Dai does not wear a mask as he works at the Hung Thinh rock quarry in Ha Tinh Province.

He says he wants to enjoy the cool climate of early morning.

"I usually don't wear the mask and gloves, especially not on a cool and breezy day like this," the 32-year-old father of two said.

"Look! I'm healthy," he shouted to make his voice heard, his sun-burned, wrinkled hands holding a drilling machine at a dusty mountain edge.

Dai is not aware that inhaling the crystalline silica dust at the rock quarry can lead to silicosis, a chronic lung disease marked by the development fibrous tissue in the lungs and a resultant chronic shortness of breath.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has warned that occupational diseases are increasing in Vietnam, and rock quarry workers like Dai are among those hardest hit.

"The industry Dai has been in for the past three years is not only infamous for deadly work accidents, but also has an alarming rate of occupational diseases," the ILO Vietnam office said in a recent report on its website.

"Each year, thousands of workers become victims of diseases that can be fatal without proper treatment," it added.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), silicosis is one of the common health problems experienced by workers in Vietnam's rock quarries.

The symptoms of this incurable disease usually take years to manifest but can become acute under intense exposure, causing shortness of breath, hearing loss, weakness, weight loss and ultimately, death.

In 2011, 76 percent of occupational disease compensation paid in Vietnam was related to silicosis.

ILO has called for an "urgent and vigorous" global campaign to tackle the growing number of work-related diseases which claim an estimated 2 million lives per year globally.

"The ultimate cost of occupational disease is human life. It impoverishes workers and their families and may undermine whole communities when they lose their most productive workers," ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said in a statement issued to mark the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28).

"Meanwhile, the productivity of enterprises is reduced and the financial burden on the state increases as the cost of healthcare rises. Where social protection is weak or absent, many workers as well as their families, lack the care and support they need," he said.

In a report issued on the occasion, ILO said that globally, the number of people killed by occupational diseases is six times higher than by workplace accidents.

Of the estimated 2.34 million annual work-related deaths, the vast majority, approximately 2.02 million, are due to work-related diseases, a daily average of 5,500 deaths, the report said.

It estimated that 160 million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases occur annually.

It said technological and social changes as well as global economic conditions had aggravated existing health hazards and created new risks.

"Well-known occupational diseases, such as pneumoconiosis and asbestos-related diseases, remain widespread, while relatively new occupational diseases, such as mental and musculoskeletal disorders, are on the rise," it said in a press release.

ILO estimates that occupational accidents and diseases result in an annual 4 percent loss in global gross domestic product (GDP), or about US$2.8 trillion, in direct and indirect costs of injuries and diseases.

In Vietnam, occupational diseases, especially those related to the respiratory and digestive system, have worsened over the past several years.

According to the Ministry of Health, at the end of 2012, nearly 28,000 workers were suffering from occupational diseases, but experts say the actual number may be ten times higher.

Silicosis is the most common health problem, accounting for 74 percent of occupational diseases recorded, followed by deafness or noise induced hearing loss at 17 percent.

According to the Health Ministry, nearly two million workers less than 4 percent of the country's active labor force had health checks last year. Among those checked, more than 7 percent had poor health records.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said workers need to be better protected by providing them with training, improving safety standards and enforcing relevant laws.

"Harnessing the knowledge of workers, backed by their unions, is crucial for preventing death and illness. Protection, including through respect for workers' rights to trade union representation, and government legislation and enforcement following ILO standards and guidance should be expanded," she said.

"Our societies must not accept that workers can lose their health to make a living. And we must not forget that occupational diseases place a huge burden on families and the public purse a burden that is preventable."

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