Firms overlook occupational diseases
By Yi Whan-woo, Kim Bo-eun
Around 170,000 workers are diagnosed with cancer every year, but only 25 on average are classified as patients suffering from a work-related illness, according to a report from the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service.
Compared to developed economies in Europe, the report suggests that Korea lags far behind when it comes to the rate at which cancer is acknowledged as caused by job activities.
Only 0.23 out of every 100,000 subscribers to Industrial Compensation Insurance were recognized as having an industry-related disease in 2010. The rate was 10.44 in France, 9.68 for Belgium, 6.53 for Finland and 6.07 for Germany.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the U.S. estimates that around 4 percent of all types of cancer have work-related causes. Applying this rate to the figures in Korea, 7,702 could have been diagnosed with industrial-related diseases but only 17 were recognized as suffering from an occupationally caused illness.
“It is a serious problem that the guidelines for recognizing cancer as a work-related disease has remained so rigid for the past 50 years, while the industrial environment is rapidly changing and cancer patients continue to increase,” said Rep. Lee Mi-kyung of the opposition Democratic United Party and member of the Environment and Labor Committee at the National Assembly.
Samsung in hot seat
In a related case, the Supreme Court on Sunday ruled in favor of civic activists protesting against Samsung Electronics in the death of a former employee who allegedly died of industrial-released disease.
They were previously sentenced to a fine by lower courts for staging an illegal rally, but the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court.
They held the rally in April 2, 2010 during a funeral service for 23-year-old female laborer, Park Ji-yun. She died of leukemia that supporters believe was caused by working at the Samsung Electronics’ semiconductor plant in Onyang, South Chungcheong Province.
Park was diagnosed with the disease in September 2007, a little less than three years after starting work as a microchip inspector at the plant. Toxic chemicals and x-rays are used there in the manufacturing process.
After learning that other colleagues had also been diagnosed with serious diseases such as cancer, Park and the civic activists called for the firm to take action to address the problem.
Park, however, died in March 2010, two months after filing a suit against Samsung. Her death was not recognized as being a result of an occupational disease.
Experts say receiving recognition for having an occupational disease has a significant impact on the mindset of the patients.
It also helps with finances because the medical expenses are covered by state insurance if the condition is certified as job-related. They can get compensation for lost income, injuries; or, in the case of death their family members receive payment.
One of the reasons for the low rate of acknowledgement is because a significant number of workers regard cancer as a personal matter while companies try to hide cases of workplace accidents and injuries.
The number of cancer-stricken workers who filed for industrial-related diseases was 135 in 2008, 125 in 2009, 174 in 2010 and 150 in 2011.
But even if they do apply, the process is difficult since they or their families need to prove that they developed cancer because of their work.
“Action also needs to be taken regarding the fact that workers need to get proof even though it is something that even experts find hard to do,” said Lee.
Currently, only lung cancer and leukemia are recognized as possible industrial-related diseases in Korea.