24% of European workers believe that their safety or their health is at risk because of their work – a figure which shows that working conditions in Europe are not improving. And even though manufacturing employment across Europe is shrinking and losing ground to service jobs, exposure to traditional physical hazards - noise, dangerous goods, heavy lifting, etc. – has not gone away.
Along with this, a growing number of workers are complaining of the effect their work is having on their psychological health. Ill-being at work can end in tragedy, as evidenced by the wave of suicides that has affected some big French companies in recent years.
New forms of work organization and the increasing time-pressure of work may be partly behind the persistence of traditional risks and the emergence of new ones in firms. Trade unions believe that work intensification is the main cause of the work-related stress and musculoskeletal disorders now seen to be affecting more than one in five workers.
While these may be problems in all countries, industries and occupations, it is clear that the lowest-skilled and manual workers are bearing the brunt. The healthy life expectancy of a 35-year-old manual worker in France, for example, is ten years less than that of a manager. As the talk in many EU member countries turns towards staying working longer, a debate on working conditions and their impact on workers’ health is a must. We are stepping into that debate through the following topic studies.
An important international meeting on toxic products opened in Geneva on 4 May with, as one of the main items on its agenda, the inclusion of chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention. In spite of the deleterious effects of this form of asbestos, lobbying by producer and importer states has so far enabled this carcinogenic substance to remain outside the purview of this instrument. Trade unions and NGOs have mobilised to prevent a repeat of its exemption.
In the run-up to the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, commemorated each year on 28 April, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has criticised the European Commission’s failure to promote occupational cancer prevention measures. On 28 April, in three European cities, the ETUC will call on the European bodies to take action in this field.
Firefighting exposures increase the risk of death from cancer, according to a study carried out by the NISOH, the U.S. federal agency responsible for conducting research on work-related diseases. Of eight types of cancers examined, researchers found that lung cancer and leukemia mortality risks increased with firefighter exposures.
The ETUI has been involved in coordinating and preparing a new compendium on health and safety in the workplace. Entitled Les risques du travail. Pour ne pas perdre sa vie à la gagner (‘Work-related risks. So as not to lose your life while earning your living’), this work looks back over the main changes that have taken place in the world of work in the last thirty years and at their impact on workers’ health. Four ETUI researchers have contributed to the volume.
Kjell Hansson Mild, PhD and Monica Sandström, PhD (Umeå University)