Since joining BSR last year, I’ve worked on numerous occupational health and safety programs in China. From my travels all around this extremely large country, I’ve learned that in many factories, occupational diseases that are contacted from chemicals or dust are not widely recognized by workers and employers as significant hazards. However, a recent report on open-chest lung testing of migrant workers has brought significant attention to this issue in China.

China’s unprecedented economic growth and social change over the last 30 years has led to the development of many new industries—and hazards—in a short period of time. In this “world factory,” working conditions and occupational health and safety remain real challenges for the country.

Recently, the Foxconn Shenzhen factory—the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer—came under intense scrutiny after a series of reported suicides. Even though leading media reports focused on the factory’s sweatshop-like conditions, I have found that Foxconn actually has better working and living conditions than many other factories. The events at Foxconn are extremely unfortunate, but it’s important to recognize that millions of workers suffer every day from hazardous working conditions that threaten their health.

In May 2010, Wintek, another large electrical manufacturer, reported that 44 workers suffered from n-hexane poisoning. Reports show that Wintek opted to use a cleaning agent containing n-hexane, a well known cleaning chemical used mainly in textile manufacturing. Long-term exposure to n-hexane is linked to nervous-system failure, yet many factories still choose to use it. Why? The answer is quite simple: N-hexane is effective, and more importantly, it is cheaper than alcohol.

As China works to revise its occupational disease prevention law this year—which was originally implemented in 2002 and requires employers to provide occupational health-related information and health monitoring and protection to help facilitate the diagnosis and verification of occupational diseases—it will without a doubt draw from the new list of internationally recognized occupational diseases released by the International Labor Office in March of this year. Even with this list as a reference point, improving the current situation will be difficult, since protections are seldom effective due to limited government resources. According to an official report, 128 new occupational disease cases were reported in China in 2009, and only 20 percent of workplaces prone to these diseases actually instated preventative measures. Many factories have not yet recognized these health and safety issues as threats.

These cases show that while China is enjoying the benefits of its impressive growth and new standards of living, the working and health conditions of workers continue to be neglected. Companies must rethink and re-strategize their health and safety policies and programs to protect workers from the threats of occupational diseases in their supply chains. In order to help the factories in your supply chain improve their conditions, encourage them to establish strong health and safety policies and invest in occupational health and safety trainings and on-site consultant programs. Every investment into health and safety improvements betters workers’ lives.