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The EU and China last week launched a new dialogue to improve working conditions and reduce work-related accidents and illnesses. VladimÃr Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities and China's Ambassador Song Zhe signed for that purpose a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on health and safety at work in Brussels.
The agreement also aims to help save lives in the Chinese mining sector - which employs 5 million workers - and where accidents are the second highest cause of accidental death in China after road traffic.
This MoU is part of a new initiative in the EU to better protect workers and their working environment. Under a new five-year strategy for health and safety at work, adopted by the Commission recently, occupational accidents should be cut by a quarter across the EU. It follows a 17 percent reduction in fatal accidents from 2002-2004 and a 20% fall in accidents leading to absence from work of three days or more. But progress remains uneven across different countries in the EU, sectors, companies and categories of workers. Changes in working life are leading to new occupational risks, while certain workplace illnesses are on the rise.
Despite advances over the past five years, there is still considerable room for improvement. The costs of accidents at work and work-related ill health do not fall equally on all players. Loss of income due to absence from work costs European workers around â‚¬1 billion a year. Employers face costs linked to sick pay, replacement of absent workers and loss of productivity - many of which are not covered by insurance.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are particularly exposed, accounting for 82% of all occupational injuries and 90% of all fatal accidents. Sectors such as construction, agriculture, transport and health all present higher than average risks of accidents at work, while young workers, migrants, older workers and those with insecure working conditions are disproportionately affected. Specific illnesses are on the rise, including musculoskeletal diseases - such as back pain, joint injuries and repetitive strain injuries - and illnesses caused by psychological strain.
The new strategy for 2007-2012 aims to achieve a sustained reduction of occupational accidents and diseases in the EU. It sets out a quantitative objective of 25% reduction of accidents at work through a series of actions at European and national levels.
The MoU between the EU and China is hoped to set up a structured dialogue covering issues of common interest in the field of health and safety at work. The dialogue aims to improve mutual understanding on health and safety through activities ranging from regular exchanges of information, legislation and best practice to joint studies, seminars and conferences. Annual review meetings will bring together senior officials from both sides. In addition, China and the EU are currently exploring the possibility of a substantial cooperation project to support the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) in their commitment to improve Chinese workers' health and safety.
Coal production has been declining continuously in the EU over recent decades, but China's coal output is growing rapidly. Coal currently accounts for over 70% of the total energy consumed in China. The MoU signature follows recent cooperation between the EU and China in the field of coal mine safety, an area particularly emphasized in the MoU. China produces around 40% of the world's coal and it still represents the vast majority of all coal mine accidents in the world. Accidents in the industry are considered to be the second highest cause of accidental death in China, after road traffic accidents, with close to 6,000 deaths per year on average. The EU has a long experience in health and safety policy, particularly in the mining sector and will, among other things, provide expertise to support China in this area.
Ari Syrquin is the head of GSCB Law Firm's International Department