|Health check: The Phu Yen Confederation of Trade Unions held free health check-ups and consultations on social insurance, health insurance for more than 300 workers at An Phu Industrial Zone. — VNA/VNS Anh Tuan
by Hong Thuy
The overall health profile of a company's workforce plays a crucial role in the company's profitability and productivity.
Though this has become a norm in organisations that rely heavily on their human resources, many companies have ignored their duty to ensure health and safety in their workplaces.
This has resulted in a failure to help employees gain access to check-ups for a periodic assessment of their health.
Pham Phuong Dung, 35, a worker at a brick making factory in Thai Binh Province's Dong Hung District, is one example.
Her job requires her to work in shifts of eight hours non-stop to stack wet molded bricks in a kiln and remove them from a conveyor belt while they are still hot.
Harsh conditions combining difficult and tense-filled work in a filthy and toxic environment has made Dung, who found it hard to adjust at the start, lose weight.
"After working in the factory for five years, I have yet to receive a health check-up," Dung said.
"Working in an environment where I breathe in dust and fumes makes me more vulnerable to pneumonia. My legs and back are also painful because I have to stand at work for long hours," she added.
Dung is not allowed to have a free health check-up and gets no pay when she is too sick to work, so she often uses her own money for medical expenses. Her case is not exceptional, however.
A mere 10 to 15 per cent of companies have fulfilled their responsibilities regarding the workplace health and safety of all their workers, said Truong Thi Mai, chairwoman of the National Assembly Committee for Social Affairs.
Government efforts to ensure labour health and safety are enacted under Clause 152 of the Amended Code of Labour, which requires employers to conduct periodic health check-ups for all employees, including regular and temporary workers as well as trainees.
The code specifies that employers must provide full gynaecological check-ups for female workers.
Under the code, workers engaged in heavy labour or subjected to hazardous and toxic work environments, as well as people with disabilities and senior citizens, are entitled to a health check-up at least once every six months.
Employers must also provide periodic check-ups for employees exposed to occupational hazards for early detection of work-related diseases.
Viet Nam has nearly 53 million people of working age, and about 32 million of them are employed in the non-state sector.
Yet, only a few state-owned and private companies with 200 or more workers are providing health check-ups for their employees, Mai said.
A majority of small and medium enterprises have yet to provide annual check-ups for employees to assess their health needs, she added.
The situation is inextricably linked with an increasing number of occupational diseases reported in Viet Nam year-on-year.
According to the Ministry of Health, the number of employees contracting occupational diseases has increased from 27,246 in 2011to 28,000 in 2012.
The most common ailments include silicosis and respiratory illnesses, as well as digestive, cardiovascular, eye and skin diseases.
The Ministry of Health released the official figures at the end of 2012. But Deputy Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Minister Bui Hong Linh expressed suspicions that the actual number of employees who have suffered from occupational diseases could be 10 times higher than the reported figures.
He attributed the underreporting of occupational diseases to irresponsibility of number of companies who failed to provide periodic health check-ups to their employees and the inability of occupational health workers to detect the cause or causes of such diseases.
Linh also noted that a mere 22 per cent of enterprises have set up their own health care units. However, most health workers there have yet to receive training in labour hygiene and safety, as well as occupational disease prevention.
Also, some enterprises that have conducted periodic health check-ups for their employees for formalities' sake failed to identify health problems among people who reportedly suffer from work-related injuries and chronic diseases, said Dr Truong Thi Xuan Lieu, former director of the HCM City Department of Health.
The Health Environment Management Agency (HEMA) under the Ministry of Health has revealed that an average of 100,000 workers have been provided with medical examinations each year in the past four years, but only 5,000 were found to be suffering from occupational diseases. Of this figure, about 500 have been assessed for hazards and treatment.
Up to 80 per cent of workers suffering from occupational diseases get hardly any regular check-ups and therapy.
Luong Thi Mai, HEMA deputy director, said high labour turnover following positive diagnoses of occupational diseases was a leading cause of a lack of proper health care among workers.
Complicated and time-consuming procedures have likewise deterred workers from pursuing timely health assessments and treatments.
Like it or not, workers are at high risk of latent occupational exposure. A survey conducted in 110 enterprises in HCM City in the first nine months of 2014 found that excessive noise, heat and dust, as well as insufficient lighting, could lead to hearing loss, silicosis and other respiratory illnesses, as well as metabolic diseases and disorders among enterprise workers.
Nearly 67 per cent of surveyed enterprises were found to have potential dangers that lead to occupational diseases, but only 25 per cent of them gave health check-ups to ensure the early detection of occupational diseases.
Workers' health was likewise found to be declining. The proportion of employees rated with good and very good health has decreased while those with average and bad health had increased by 16 per cent year-on-year.
"Occupational diseases will continue to increase in the years to come if companies do not care about health and safety issues in the work place," said Dr Huynh Van Tien, director of HCM Centre for Labour Health and Environment Protection.
To cope with the rise in occupational diseases, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently called upon countries around the world to take strong and drastic preventive measures to reduce the risk of work-related diseases, which were estimated to have claimed about two million people each year.
The ILO noted that although death rates resulting from occupational diseases were six times higher than those of work accidents, few efforts have been made to tackle the issue.
In response to ILO's request, Viet Nam is working hard to complete the new Law on Labour Hygiene and Safety, providing health protection for workers and preventing occupational diseases, among others.
Linh said the law would clarify the responsibilities of the state, employers, employees and concerned agencies and individuals while ensuring close co-ordination among various authorities and sectors, thereby contributing to the improvement of the legal framework on occupational safety and hygiene in Viet Nam, strengthening occupational accident and disease prevention and measures through better control of risk, adverse factors in workplaces, simplifying administrative procedures and ensuring greater enforcement of existing laws.
According to experts, the bill has specified more detailed regulations on rights, obligations and responsibilities of employees with little or no access to occupational safety and hygiene activities, as well as provisions on spending for occupational accident and disease control and victims. — VNS