Workplace accidents on the rise in Vietnam

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Government occupational safety plan criticized as workplace accidents kill at least 323 people and injure more than 3,100 others so far this year

Workers arrange steel structures at a construction site in Hanoi. Experts have urged the government and employers to improve workplace safety as workplace accidents continue unabated in Vietnam. PHOTO: REUTERS

Nguyen Thanh Huy is still unable to move his legs after suffering a horrific lift accident last June at a construction site in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7.

"Doctors told me to return to the hospital for more physical therapy only if my condition improves," said the 20-year-old man from the central province of Binh Dinh.

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Last June, Huy, a construction student at the HCMC University of Technical Education, decided to stay in the city during the summer vacation to work at a construction site and earn some extra money.

On June 21, the construction lift carrying him and another worker dropped free-fall from the second floor when its cable broke, sending the two workers to the ground with multiple injuries.

Construction sites are among the most common unsafe workplaces in Vietnam, besides mines and machine factories, according to the Occupational Safety Department at the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.

Huy suffered serious injuries in his neck, spleen and lungs. He has been able to move his hands after months of treatment but his legs remain paralyzed. The other victim, a construction worker, would walk again a week later after surgery.

Since Huy did not sign a contract with the company, he received little support money and no insurance reimbursement.

"Being a construction worker, I am aware of safety measures like wearing a strap when working at high places. But it was the lack of safety equipment that paralyzed my legs and ruined my future," he said.

The number of workplace accidents is on the rise in Vietnam, prompting experts' calls for stricter government supervision to punish employers that disregard safety measures to save money, and to improve safety awareness among reckless workers.

Rising deaths

According to latest statistics released by the Occupational Safety Department, there were more than 3,300 workplace accidents in the first half of this year, killing 323 people and injuring more than 3,100 others.

Over the same period last year, a total of 279 people were killed and more than 2,800 others were injured in workplace accidents.

The occupations with highest fatalities include mining, construction, electricity and engineering.

There were 56 deaths in 420 workplace accidents in HCMC over the first half of this year, the highest among cities and provinces nationwide.

At a meeting last week to review occupational safety and fire prevention in HCMC over the first nine months, the city Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs said in a statement that the situation is "extremely complicated, with high potentialities of workplace accidents and fire."

"[We] recommend that the companies step up self-inspections"¦ to handle safety threats," it said.

The agency reported a total of 78 deaths in 76 fatal accidents over the first nine months, without releasing statistics about non-fatal workplace accidents.

Last year, there were 1,500 workplace accidents in HCMC, killing 106 people, an increase of 13 deaths over 2011. Nearly half of last year's workplace accidents in the city happened at construction sites.

In the shadow

Nguyen Anh Tho, deputy director of the Occupational Safety Department, said that an annual average of 160-170 people were killed in workplace accidents over the past several years.

"But that's only reported statistics. In reality, the actual number of workplace accidents, both fatal and non fatal, is several times higher," he was quoted by the Hanoimoi news website as saying.

"Hundreds of workplace accidents nationwide everyday not only take the lives of those who are the major financial supporters of their families, but also lead to subsequent and long-term consequences," he said.

He said it was "special" that only two employers have been criminally investigated for the 552 fatal workplace accidents last year.

At a recent meeting to discuss the Law on Occupational Safety and Hygiene, many experts blamed employers for being indifferent to occupational safety requirements.

The most common violations found include excessive extra working hours, no safety training, no inspections of machines and equipment.

Thanh, a retired police investigator in HCMC, said the reported statistics on workplace accidents were incomplete because many employers have refused to report fatal accidents to police.

"A skyscraper's construction often takes the lives of dozens of workers," he said, adding that the investors or constructors often compensate the family of the worker and tell them not to report the incident to police.

"Even when the police are aware of the fatalities, they [the investor/constructor] will try to bribe them to let it go," he said.

Blame game

Many employers have blamed worker recklessness for workplace accidents while relevant agencies say they don't have enough personnel to tackle the problem.

Nguyen Quoc Viet, deputy chief inspector at the HCMC labor department, said many employers are not aware of the importance of maintaining safety at the workplace.

"Many workers are seasonal and day laborers who seek jobs in the city after the harvest season. They are not properly trained in workplace safety."

"Meanwhile, it is difficult to inspect thousands of companies with only ten labor inspectors at our agency," he said.

Meanwhile, many employers have shifted the blame on reckless workers.

In November last year, two construction workers, Nguyen Van Cu and Mai Truc Thong, fell off the 16th floor of a building on Hanoi's Truong Dinh Street and died.

Subsequent police investigations found that the workers were "reckless" when they placed heavy material on a temporary floor meant to collect dropped objects. The floor then collapsed and the workers fell off, police said.

Some employers have been quoted by local media as saying that many workers are reckless, leading to fatal accidents.

However, Nguyen Thai Hoa, national project coordinator of the International Labor Organization's Occupational Safety and Hygiene Project in Vietnam, said it is not very convincing when a labor ministry report says employees are to be blame for 30 percent of workplace accidents and employers are also responsible for around 30 percent of the cases.

Relevant laws and recommendations from international organizations all dictate that employers are responsible for workplace accidents.

"You are allowed to let the employees work only when ensuring safety and hygiene"¦ Only after creating a safe working environment and training the workers in safety standards can employers blame employees for violating those standards," he told Vietweek.

"However, currently, the number of companies creating such a safe environment and giving safety training to employees is limited," he added.

Ill-conceived program

The increasing number of workplace accidents flies in the face of a national program to improve workplace safety, which has been criticized as ill-conceived from the beginning.

In 2010, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the National Program for Labor Safety and Hygiene to invest VND700 billion (US$34.6 million) to improve workplace safety, aiming to reduce by 5 percent the number of fatal accidents in high-risk occupations every year and by 10 percent the number of workers contracting occupational diseases.

Hoa said the program should have identified these proportions before setting the target of a 5-percent reduction.

"What I am aware of is that relevant governmental agencies do not know the fatal proportions of [high-risk] occupations," he said.

The Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs said only 5 percent of companies nationwide report workplace accidents, he said.

"If you've only got 5 percent, it means you do not get the situation. And when you do not get the situation, you can never set a target."

Regarding a solution for workplace accidents, Hoa said all the details from the plan must be carried out thoroughly. He added that support from international organizations was also a must.

"But the important thing is the awareness and willingness on the part of government leaders, and whether or not they are determined to solve the problem."

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