Health officials chastised after worker submits to risky surgery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 July, 2009, 12:00am

Five health officials in Zhengzhou, Henan, had been reprimanded after a public outcry over a factory worker who was forced to have chest surgery to prove he developed deadly black lung disease at work, state media reported yesterday.

The controversial surgery was performed on Zhang Haichao , 28, to confirm he suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Mr Zhang's illness was apparently caused by working in a dusty atmosphere at a factory producing fireproof fabrics.

When Mr Zhang first sought a diagnosis, the Zhengzhou Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Centre said he was suffering from a combination of the lung disease and tuberculosis, disqualifying him from free treatment or compensation from the factory.

Mr Zhang believed the diagnosis was wrong and sought a second opinion - undergoing risky open-chest surgery at Zhengzhou University No1 Affiliated Hospital - which confirmed his problems were work-related. 'In choosing this risky option, I was using my life as a betting chip,' Mr Zhang told the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily this month.

'But if I didn't do this, then people would forever be sacrificed to occupational illnesses unknowingly.'

Black lung, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a potentially deadly condition caused by the inhalation of dust-filled air over a prolonged time. Mr Zhang had worked in the Zhengzhou Zhendong Abrasion-Proof Materials plant, in Xinmi , Henan, for three years before contracting flu-like symptoms and breathing problems two years ago.

Work-related illnesses are common on the mainland, especially in small plants in peripheral cities where oversight of working conditions tends to be lax.

But the high level of exposure Mr Zhang's case has received and the government's aggressive response suggest a growing awareness of long-running health and safety issues. Domestic media reports of Mr Zhang's plight and the surgery used to diagnose his illness sparked an outcry online, prompting an inquiry by the Ministry of Health.

Minister of Health Chen Zhu and other state leaders had taken an interest in the case, state media reported. Li Lei , director of the disease centre in Zhengzhou, had been suspended pending an investigation. And the centre's deputy director, Li Guoyu, had been removed from office by the party committee of the municipal Health Bureau, Xinhua reported.

Three other health officials in the centre - Fan Meifang , Wang Xiaoguang and Niu Xinhua - lost their qualifications to deal with respiratory diseases and were to receive punishments from the party disciplinary committee.

Three officials in Xinmi were removed from office over the incident, and the city had launched an investigation into the abrasion-proof- materials plant.