23% 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.
On 10 January, the European Commission published its second draft of the revised Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work. The omission of diesel engine exhaust from this draft has prompted criticism by the European trade union movement.
On 25 October 2016, the Ghent Employment Tribunal ordered a company to pay damages of €22,000 to a former employee who had lost her job while suffering from cancer. The case was reported by the Belgian press only in late December. The dismissal letter sent to the employee stated that her long periods of absence had compromised her ‘continuity of service’.
An Oxford University study that concluded the classification of night work as a cause of breast cancer in women is no longer justified was based on ‘bad science’, top researchers have warned.
Dr Jukka Takala, a world expert on work-related cancer, considers it necessary to establish a global programme for eliminating carcinogens in the workplace. ‘Cancer is the primary cause of death in the workplace,’ he stated on 16 December 2016 at an ETUI monthly forum.
The Canadian government is moving to ban the use of asbestos by 2018, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan announced on 15 December. The ban on asbestos, which the World Health Organization declared a “human carcinogen” in 1987, will apply to the manufacture of any products containing the substance, as well as on imports and exports.
Tony Musu (ETUI), Laurent Vogel (ETUI) and Henning Wriedt (Beratungs- und Informationsstelle Arbeit & Gesundheit, Hamburg)
Henning Wriedt (Occupational Health & Safety Advice Centre, Hamburg, Germany)