A Zhejiang court has awarded more than 200 million yuan (HK$188 million) in compensation in the nation's largest settle ment for disability and death caused by silicosis, China's most prevalent and deadly occupational illness. Silicosis is an incurable disease that occurs when large numbers of silica particles are inhaled into the lungs. Over time, initial symptoms of shortness of breath, coughing, phlegm and a painfully bloated stomach leave victims emaciated and unable to breathe. On Wednesday, the Wenzhou City Intermediate People's Court gave 196 victims compensation ranging from 38,000 yuan to 380,000 yuan, based on the extent of their illnesses, the Legal Daily said. It also gave families of deceased victims 226,800 yuan. A court official said the sum, already more than 200 million yuan, could end up being even more. 'Our initial calculations were based on physical examinations of 196 workers with silicosis in September last year, including 10 who died,' he said. 'But the number of victims has risen to more than 220, and more workers may come forward now that the settlement has been announced.' The tragedy started in April 1993, when Liaoning province's Traffic Bureau and the Dongbei Coal Engineering Company signed an agreement to build a highway between Liaoyang and Benxi, including drilling a north-south tunnel. The job was subcontracted several times and each time more money was taken out in 'management fees'. The Dongbei Coal Engineering Company earned a three per cent management fee by sub-contracting the job to Shenyang Engineering and Heilongjiang Qitaihe City Mining Bureau. They, in turn, reaped an 11 per cent profit by further sub-contracting the job to companies owned by contractors Chen Yixiao, Wang Yunfu and Zhang Wanmin. With little money left to do the job, the three men brought in more than 400 low-paid labourers from Taishun County in Zhejiang province to drill the tunnel. According to the court, the men were not provided with adequate safety facilities and the tunnel was drilled without the water needed to stop the silica dust particles that cause silicosis from being released in large quantities when they drilled the rock face. After worker Cai Siye failed to negotiate a settlement on behalf of his co-workers with his superiors, he filed a joint lawsuit for more than 200 million yuan at the Wenzhou City Intermediate People's Court for the workers' medical care and stays in hospital. The court ruled that all of the companies involved in the subcontracting process had wilfully disregarded the law and the workers' health and safety. The court put most of the blame on subcontractors Chen Yixiao, Wang Yunfu and Zhang Wanmin, saying they most knowingly neglected the safety of the Zhejiang workers. 'The defendants have appealed against the verdict, and so it may take some time before the victims see their money,' the court spokesman said. 'But considering the court was so overwhelmingly supportive of the victims in the first trial, I would be surprised if the highest court took a different stance.'