Occupational diseases threaten Vietnamese workers hinh anh 1Workers at automobile-making factory of Ford Company in Vietnam. (Photo: VNA)
Hanoi (VNA) - Vu Duc Kham, 43, was just coming out of anaesthesia after seven hours of having his lungs washed at the Coal and Mineral Hospital in Hanoi.

His lungs were found to be covered with silica after 17 years working underground as a coal miner in the northern province of Quang Ninh. He did not know he contracted silicosis until he underwent a medical check-up at the beginning of this year.

“My lung washing liquid looks dark and scary,” he said.

According to Le Quang Chung, deputy director of the hospital, the Coal and Mineral Hospital has so far washed out the lungs of more than 2,000 people with silicosis, most of whom are workers in the coal and mineral mining sector.

“Silicosis-infected patients cannot recover perfectly from the infection as the result of pulmonary fibrosis. Without proper treatment, the disease might result in complications which reduce patients’ lifespan,” Chung said.

Exhausted with burdensome work as a bricklayer for a construction company under the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Dinh Thi Hoa, 54, living in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung district, asked for work leave in 1994.

After 19 years working under unusual weather conditions, pollution and constant changes of work locations, she suffers from respiratory symptoms, permanent muscle and bone pain, and sometimes high-blood pressure.

Most workers at the company quit their jobs at the age of 40 due to declining health, after 20 years of working, Hoang Thi Duong, a company worker, living in Hai Ba Trung district’s Quynh Mai ward, said.

They are just a few among the workers catching diseases while working in risk-exposed environments. However, not many of them have ever heard of this referred to as “occupational disease”.

According to medical experts, an occupational disease is any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity.

In Vietnam, mining, construction, mechanics, chemicals manufacturing and use are the sectors with the highest number of workers contracting occupational illnesses, Nhan Dan (People) newspaper reported.

According to a study by the newspaper, over the past five years, 24 percent of workers nationwide asked for sick leave, much higher than in previous years.

More than 70 percent of miners and construction workers have their health status classified as second and third rank (with first being the highest).

So far up to 447 workers nationwide are suspected to have contracted occupational diseases that relate to asbestos, a mineral commonly used in construction, mining and industrial sectors, and is the leading “culprit” of silicosis and various cancers.

Experts predict that asbestos-related ailments will be on the rise over the coming decades as its incubation period lasts for up to 30 years. So symptoms might not develop until workers have retired.

According to the Labour Code, employers must ensure that the working environment meets standards on space, air, light and other hazardous and toxic elements. These factors need to be monitored regularly.

Nguyen Van Son, deputy head of the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health said that a lot of firms disregard the work environment, conditions and health protection measures for workers.

According to the Health Environment Management Department under the Health Ministry, only 5 to 10 percent of registered businesses conduct work environment assessments. The assessments found that factors related to dust, noise, toxic substances, vibration, and radioactivity far exceed safe criteria.

Luong Mai Anh, deputy head of the department, said less than 10 percent of workers nationwide who have health insurance are offered occupational disease check-ups by their employers.

In fact, tens of thousands of Vietnamese workers have to ask for “early retirement” due to illness, without knowing that they have contracted occupational disease or enjoying health insurance benefits.

She said that nearly 29,000 workers across the country have had their health assessed and receive occupational disease pay.

“In fact, the actual number of employees who have suffered from occupational diseases could be 10 times higher than the reported figures because of the ignorance of health check-ups by many businesses,” she said.

Until 2015, Vietnam has recognised 34 occupational diseases. According to regulations, health insurance is only paid for workers diagnosed to have contracted the listed diseases. However, over the years, many new work-related illnesses have appeared, leading to the fact that many workers who contract ailments “obviously” caused by their jobs fail to receive any insurance.

A study by the National Institute for Science, Technology and Labour Protection under the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) showed that female labourers working at frozen seafood processing factories get varicose veins in their calves, as a result of standing for prolonged periods. Musculoskeletal disorders amongst shoe-makers and diseases following exposure to toxic liquid are also common among workers but they have not been added to the list.

Associate Professor Nguyen An Luong, VGCL former vice president and incumbent president of Vietnam Occupational Safety and Health Association, said “The slow amendments to the occupational diseases list means that workers suffer from the loss of benefits in terms of insurance.”

“Compared to a list of 105 occupational diseases that has been adopted by the International Labour Organisation since 2010, the number of 34 diseases recognised in Vietnam is too humble,” he said.

Meanwhile, diagnosis, supervision and treatment of occupational diseases in Vietnam lack both equipment and human resources, Doctor Nguyen Van Son, deputy head of the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health, said.

There are only 63 departments and 53 clinics nationwide with over 300 doctors specialsing in treating occupational diseases.

Occupational diseases departments of central-level hospitals such as Hospital E, and Thanh Nhan Hospital in Hanoi are no longer operational.

Nhan Dan newspaper reported that until now, Vietnam has not had a national data system on occupational diseases.

According to Associate Professor Nguyen An Luong, occupational diseases place a burden on families and society but they can be avoided.

“Building a preventive strategy is the key to solving the problem. The strategy must focus on ensuring safety at the workplace, studying and adding a list of occupational diseases covered with health insurance,” he said.

Le Huu Nghi, deputy director of the Construction Hospital agreed with the solution, saying that a national strategy to protect workers’ health would preserve invaluable “resources” of society.-VNA