Who cares about China?

October 2, 2012

around the worldI say anything close to true global harmonization has a helluva long way to go.

I’m not talking about war and peace.

I’m referring to the incredible, horrible worker fatality stats that come from China each year, and barely warrant a mention in the U.S. press or U.S. safety press.

More than 75,500 people died in work-related accidents last year, according to the State Administration of Work Safety.

Road safety is also a serious problem in China, with poorly maintained roads and bad driving habits resulting in about 70,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries a year, according to news agency Xinhua.

That’s a staggering loss of life. But how people deal with loss of life is a strange deal. When presented in the aggregate, even U.S. figures get scant attention.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) preliminary results of the national census of fatal occupational injuries report showed 4,609 people died from on-the-job injuries in the U.S. in 2011.

Only the American Society of Safety Engineers seemed moved, ASSE President Richard A. Pollock, CSP, said “It is alarming that 13 people a day are dying from work related injuries. This is a serious problem that we find unacceptable.”

Only the public interest investigative Fair Warning has written on of “America's worst public health afflictions -- the annual loss of tens of thousands of lives on the nation's highways” which Fair Warning says “is being massively ignored. The inaction is particularly striking because so many political leaders have themselves been touched by highway tragedies. The fathers of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were killed in auto wrecks, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden lost his first wife and their infant child in a car-truck collision. Yet there seems to be wide indifference to the toll of more than 30,000 deaths and over 2.2 million crash injuries a year.”

Individually, of course, we react far differently to loss of life that strikes close to home, taking a family member, friend, neighbor, or coworkers. We show deep caring, love and support. Empathy.

But empathy only travels so far, it appears. It doesn’t make it across the Pacific, or the Atlantic for that matter. Though Americans of course have closer ties with Europeans than Communist Chinese.

And it seems empathy is incapable of surmounting gruesome facts, as in many Chinese employers do not value human life, believing a long line of poverty-stricken former farmers will take just about any risk for a few dollars more. Our attitude: If they don’t care about their own people, why should we?

And we do not care. How many articles appear in U.S. safety magazines about international EHS issues? Damn few. And that’s because the editors have been told by readers to forget it. Years ago ISHN did a cover story on Safety in China. I spent 10 days in Beijing reporting. After the issue came out, I got one letter from a confused reader: “Why are you putting a Chinese boy on your cover. I don’t care about China. I read ISHN to learn about safety.”

The world may be flat, but that doesn’t make it any easier for empathy to get from one corner of our world to another. The world may be getting smaller, but we all don’t feel closer. You don’t have to save the world or boycott Apple or Nike because they rip off foreign workers. You can support non-governmental agencies (NGOs) who will do the work for you. You can support ASSE or AIHA international outreach efforts.

75,000 workers killed a year is like a city the size of Green Bay, Wisc. Just disappearing forever.