SOCSO cases: Effective compensation needed

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) applauds the Human Resource Minister, YB Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam for highlighting the fact that workers are losing out on SOCSO claims because doctors do not link diseases and health problems to the job.

The problem of serious under-reporting of occupational diseases had also been highlighted by our former Human Resource Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Fong Chan Onn.

Sadly, it is not only doctors that let down workers. SOCSO can be equally guilty. We have cases where Socso’s medical board has approved the workers benefit only to have it later rejected by Socso’s medical appellate board. Does SOCSO not trust is own medical board?

There are also workers whose claims are rejected because they were filed more than one year after the accident. These are illiterate workers who are unaware of the SOCSO benefits available. By the time they find out from friends of friends it is more than 12 months.

Though Socso’s regulations allows it to extend the time limit for filing claims, it does not exercise it often enough.

One worker could not file a claim within the required time as he was in prison. When he was released, his claim was rejected by 3 Socso branches before he finally succeeded. We have another case where the worker is in a vegetative state and the wife filed for disability benefit on his behalf. The claim was rejected because it was filed after the 12 months time limit. The wife did not do so earlier was because she was ignorant about the benefit.

Socso should not “rob” deserving workers of their benefits.

The number of work-related diseases, including cancer, skin ailments and respiratory illnesses has increased. Thousands of workers will miss out on medical treatment, compensation and possible disability benefits because of the failure to diagnose illnesses linked to occupations as such.

Based on British standards that there would be one case of occupational disease for every industrial accident occurring, this would mean that Malaysia should have about 60,000 workers registering occupational illnesses per year. Malaysia is only recording an average of about 200 to 300 occupational diseases annually.

At the end of 2005, Datuk Seri Dr Fong Chan Onn had expressed disappointment at the poor performance of doctors on the SOCSO panel and wanted them to accord workers their rightful benefits. Dr Fong highlighted the insufficient numbers of doctors qualified in occupational health and safety throughout the country. It is obvious that no progress has been made.

CAP calls on the authorities to take immediate action to correct the situation.

Employers must be mandated to provide a safe and healthy working environment. This includes the use, handling, storing and transporting of chemicals or machinery; and the education, training and supervision of workers on health and safety measures. Stiff penalties should be imposed on those employers who default.

Among the work-related conditions that can afflict employees are asthma, back trouble, heavy metal poisoning (e.g. lead poisoning), skin diseases, asbestosis and mesothelioma (for workers handling asbestos), silicosis (for workers exposed to silica), cancers of the lung, bladder and nose, bronchitis, birth defects (affecting the unborn child), and carpal tunnel syndrome (computer workers, etc.)

Reproductive hazards are one area that has not been given much attention. These hazards can be defined as “substances or agents that affect the reproductive health of women or men or the ability of couples to have healthy children”. Exposure to radiation, cigarette smoke, alcohol or alcohol-based products, and certain chemicals and drugs are some examples of reproductive hazards.

The whole system of handling workers with occupational illnesses needs to be reviewed. A Socso study has already found that many employers were reluctant to notify Socso of occupational diseases for fear of visits by authorities, closure of operations, stop-work orders, and sealing of equipment. Employees themselves do not report such illnesses for fear of dismissal of discrimination by employers.

Panel doctors are expected to detect and report work-related diseases but this system also has its drawbacks. Firstly, there are insufficient doctors trained in the field of occupational diseases.

Secondly, the present system requires a panel doctor to secure a contract with the management or the employer. In fact, it can be said that the doctor compromises his professional independence the moment he secures this contract. He has to ensure that he retains the contract in subsequent years. To be able to do so, he needs to maintain a good relationship with the management. Diagnosing a too high number of occupation-related diseases from a particular company is not expected to boost good relations with the management and can jeopardize a panel doctor’s position.

Furthermore, to be placed on a company’s panel, doctors may compete among themselves to reduce the cost of medical treatment. These low costs may compromise the quality of treatment.

As an alternative to a panel made up of individual private clinics, Socso could fund Occupational Health Units in all government hospitals. Workers can access these units if they are suffering from an occupation-related disease and need treatment. Socso claims can be evaluated and processed using a standard system throughout the country.

Training for more doctors in the field of occupational diseases also needs to be expedited.

Industrial health nurses could be stationed in the bigger organizations or in any organization that carries out hazardous operations. This should be mandatory and strictly enforced.

Some international companies keep records of their workers – their health history and the risks that they have been exposed to during the course of their work. Such keeping of records should be made a legal requirement here in Malaysia.

Press Statement, 27 February, 2009