Salt Lake Tribune Special Report:
Metal factories fail to protect against fatal lung diseases

By Loretta Tofani
Special to the Tribune

FOSHAN, China -- Factory workers in this small industrial city made parts for Char-Broil grills and gas stoves without wearing respirator masks with charcoal filters. The factory had no special ventilation systems. No ear plugs. No chemical wash units.

All of these safety protections were standard equipment when workers in Columbus, Ga., built and assembled Char-Broil stoves until their factory closed last year.

Another difference? Some of the Chinese workers are dying.

In a barracks-like building with a tin roof in Foshan, Wei Chaihua and other workers operated the machines that sanded and polished the steel for Char-Broil stoves. Now Wei's lungs are filled with microscopic metal specks that created nodules that make it difficult to breathe. Wei has silicosis, a fatal lung disease he contracted because the Bai Xing factory here had higher levels of silica dust than allowed by Chinese law, according to his medical records and a local government inspection report of the factory air.

The factory provided Wei and other workers with only thin gauze masks.

Similarly ill-equipped factories in China make jewelry, utensils, tool and die casts, ceramic tiles, dinner plates and marble tiles for U.S. and worldwide export. Epidemiologists estimate about 4.4 million workers in China have silicosis from working in these industries without adequate protection, although most have not been diagnosed.

"I know my days are numbered," Wei, 44, said, raising his left hand to his heart after the exertion of talking. "I cannot believe this has happened to me."

Working at the factory
The story of Wei's high expectations in taking a factory job compared to the actual grim consequences of his work is a story common throughout China. It suggests that U.S. media reports that globalization has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty have not taken into account the widespread loss of health and life from occupational diseases.

Wei spent nearly all his life working in a farming village in a mountainous part of Hubei Province. He, his wife and two children raised corn, potatoes and Chinese cabbage on a half acre of land. The air was clear, unpolluted. There were no factories.

For most of his life, Wei said, he felt relatively satisfied. He was a subsistence farmer, but felt secure in the knowledge his family would not go hungry. Throughout the 1990s, however, Wei could not help but notice friends and neighbors leaving for jobs in distant cities. They spoke of educating their children, improving life for their families. Wei decided he should try this new route, too.

"I hoped to give my children a better future," he said.

In October 2002, Wei said goodbye to his family, not knowing when he would see them again. He traveled for 36 hours by train to southern Guangzhou Province, arriving first in Shenzhen. The heavy traffic, the noise, the loud blaring music in the streets, the tall buildings and the many factories all surprised him. The air looked like grey lint, thick with industrial dust and chemicals.

In Shenzhen, Wei initially worked in construction, but ended up seeking factory work in Foshan, only a few hours away by bus.

He found a job in the Bai Xing factory, which transformed raw steel into polished, shiny stainless steel for charcoal and gas grills. It also made "Dutch ovens," cast iron pots overlaid with bright orange, red, blue and green enamel.

The discipline, rigor and monotony of factory work surprised Wei. "I missed home, my old life, a lot," he said.

But he forced himself to adjust.

Most workers, like Wei, didn't even know what they were making, having never seen an outdoor gas oven before. When asked to name the object he made, Wei insisted he did not know. "Waiguo dongxi," he said. "Foreign thing."

Wei operated one of four machines that sand and polish steel, each machine producing metallic dust as it sanded with ever greater refinement. His machine was last in line, producing dust containing the finest particles.

A manager told Wei the thin gauze mask he wore would protect him. Wei said he thought, simply, it would protect him from getting dust in his lungs. He did not know it was supposed to protect him from an actual disease that could kill him.

At work, Wei would open the door of the large machine that did the sanding, put the steel in its proper position, close the door and press a button. The machine made a swishing sound as it sanded; then the noise stopped. When Wei opened the door, metal dust flew out, covering his hair and face with a grey film. He'd take the steel out, put it aside, and start the whole process again.

After three years, by April 2006, Wei had difficulty breathing and suffered frequent nausea. He became tired easily, even after just two hours of standing at work. He could not walk more than a few yards without feeling breathless.

Four months later, lacking stamina, Wei stopped working and sought medical treatment. He hasn't returned to work since.

Meanwhile, the Foshan Nanhai Disease Prevention and Control Center investigated Wei's medical complaint. An inspector from the center visited Wei's factory on Dec. 8, 2006, according to an inspection document, and found the concentration of silica dust exceeded the maximum short-term exposure limit by 56 percent over 15 minutes, and exceeded the maximum permissible time weighted-average concentration over eight hours by 144 percent.

A spokesman for the Desheng Enamel Development Co. in Guangzhou, which owns the Bai Xing factory where Wei worked, said he knew about Wei's illness but did not believe it had resulted from his work in the factory. "We always have followed the law and regulations of the country in what we do for the worker," Zhang Li Tao said. "He only worked for the factory for one year, so we're not sure if it's the factory's fault that he has this disease or a factory where he worked previously."

Wei's identity card from the factory shows he worked there for three years. Wei says he did not work in any other factory.

Zhang said Char-Broil was the company's largest customer. The Bai Xing factory sends its products to Char-Broil using the Guangzhou Trademaster and Creation Co.

Shipping documents show that on May 15, 2007, Guangzhou Trademaster sent $44,258 worth of barbecue parts in 7,200 cartons through the Port of Long Beach to Char-Broil. On May 21, Char-Broil received $58,407 of "brass burners" from Desheng Enamel's shipping company.

W.C. Bradley Co., which moved its manufacturing to China in stages over the past decade, requires all overseas vendors to sign agreements saying they and any sub-contractors will comply with their country's health and safety regulations, Chief Executive Steve Butler said. "We don't want to be part of a system that creates a problem for workers," he said.

But monitoring the manufacture of the Char-Broil gas stoves from Georgia has been a challenge. W.C. Bradley employs Chinese agents to help the company operate in China. "They are responsible for sourcing our products, and for compliance -- making sure the products conform to design specifications, and the materials conform to design standards," Butler said.

Butler said he did not know how agents made sure that factories comply with China's health and safety regulations, and acknowledged independent auditing may be necessary.

"How do we look over their shoulders?" Butler asked, referring to agents and factories. At a recent meeting, the company decided to include money in its budget for "plane tickets to China" so employees can conduct their own audits, he said.

To return home to die
In January 2007, Wei obtained his diagnosis from the Guangzhou Occupational Disease and Prevention Hospital. A physician there told him he had silicosis and needed treatment.

Wei had never heard of the disease but was happy it could be treated. He assumed he'd get better. Instead, he got worse.

On March 19, Wei was admitted to the Guangzhou Occupational Disease and Prevention Hospital, which provided him with an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

Wei asked a physician when he'd be cured. The physician, Wei recalled, looked at him apologetically. "He told me, 'There is no cure,' " Wei said.

A medical report from the hospital dated March 27 noted Wei had "second stage silicosis." The third stage is terminal.

Now, unable to work, Wei lives in a one-room apartment rented for him by the factory. He receives a "maintenance allowance" of about $55 per month, $75 less than he earned while he was working. Someone from the factory brings him his meals. Under Chinese law, workers with medical records certifying that they have occupational diseases are entitled to sick pay, hospitalization and medical expenses from the employer. The employer also must provide them with housing and meals.

If the state later determines that an employee cannot work, the employer or the employer's insurance must pay them disability compensation -- in most cases no more than the equivalent of two years' salary, usually not more than $5,000. But many employers succeed in not paying it, according to lawyers.

Although Wei's employer must feed and house him for now, Wei is afraid of the factory's bosses. Like most factories in China, his factory employs a team of security guards. They are backed up, Wei believes, by gang members. Indeed, other Chinese workers interviewed for these stories who argued with their employers over back pay or overtime pay had physical evidence of severe beatings.

In one case, worker Hu Yongxian, 39, a carpenter at a factory that exported furniture to the U.S., pulled up his shirt to show wide black marks across his back and similar markings on his scalp.

"They used iron pipes," Hu said, referring to the factory's security guards, who settled a dispute over Hu's back pay. "I fell to the ground and they kept beating me."

During one of several interviews in a restaurant, Wei's cell phone rang jarringly six times, at intervals of 15 to 30 minutes each. He did not answer, but he did glance at the number on his phone each time. "It's the factory again," he said. "They keep calling me. They are watching me. They know I'm not in my room. They don't want me to talk about my disease, about what happened to me."

At one point, Wei considered leaving the restaurant in Foshan and cutting the interview short. "The factory has a gang," he said. "I'm afraid they will have me killed."

The factory's spokesman, Zhang Li Tao, said the factory protects itself from outside troublemakers with security guards, but he says it does not use those guards against employees.

Every day now, Wei, who has trouble eating anything more substantial than soup, wakes up around 11:30 a.m. and goes to sleep at 6 p.m. He spends most of each day in bed, listening to the radio. Sometimes, if he is feeling well enough, he walks down the block and back to his apartment.

He is waiting for the social security bureau to decide the severity of his disability so he can ask the factory for disability money. The degree of the disability, factored in a formula with Wei's salary, will determine the amount of compensation Wei can receive. He hopes for a few thousand dollars.

Wei does not intend to go to court, he said, adding that he wants a quick resolution.

Workers who go to court, usually because their employers refuse to pay compensation, tend to receive much more money than those who do not, according to a spokesman at China Labour Bulletin, a non-government organization in Hong Kong. On Dec. 22, 2005, the Huidong County People's Court awarded a silicosis patient, Feng Xingzhong, 33, a record amount: nearly $60,000. Approximately half the amount was to cover long-term medical treatment. It was the first time a court had awarded compensation for long-term treatment to an occupational-disease patient.

Wei wants to return home to die. But he does not want to leave Foshan until he has some disability money to take home with him. As it is, he has given up his dreams of sending his children to high school and college.

"My only dream now," said Wei, "is to be at home with my family when I die."


Copyright 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune,