China's Jewelry Workers Develop Occupational Disease

June 19, 2003

China's Jewelry Workers Develop Occupational Disease

As China has become Asia's leading exporter of manufactured goods to the U.S., its productivity has resulted in a surge of fatal respiratory and other diseases, The New York Times reported June 18. Workers are beginning to protest unhealthy working conditions. These conditions caused more deaths last year in China than in any other part of the world.

NYT profiled one form of disease, silicosis, a lung ailment caused by overexposure to silicon dioxide trapped in quartz, minerals, rocks and sand. It reported specifically on workers at a jewelry factory called Lucky Gems & Jewelry. About 50 workers have fallen ill with symptoms thought to be silicosis, which in its severe forms can cause early death. The workers cut and sand gems such as opal, topaz and malachite.

Lucky Gems, located about two hours north of Hong Kong, is battling dozens of workers over medical claims. The owner of Lucky Gems, a Hong Kong businessman named Wang Shenghua, was a pioneer in bringing jewelry manufacturing to southern China in the mid-1980s. Lucky Gems told NYT it has always met the government's standards for safety. In 2001 it installed an additional $1 million worth of ventilation equipment at the factory, after the first cases of silicosis were confirmed, said workers. Work stations now have vacuum tubes to suck up dust, which is spewed outside through exhaust valves.

Even with the new ventilation, however, stonecutters and sanders can be easily spotted at the end of the work day because their shirts have turned gray from the remaining dust. The factory failed a government safety inspection last summer which showed ambient silica concentrations as high as 70 times the standard allowed by the Chinese safety code, whch is less strict than comparable U.S. codes. Last fall, Lucky Gems asked for another safety inspection, which it passed. Workers claim the factory shut down some work stations before inspectors arrived for the second safety check. The company denies this action.

by Peggy Jo Donahue

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