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19 December 2016

Plea for a global plan to combat occupational cancer

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 figures are indisputable. In the European Union alone, 102 000 people die each year because of their exposure during their working life to carcinogenic substances or their involvement in processes exposing them to carcinogenic agents. This figure accounts for 53% of all deaths connected with work-related diseases.

Policies introduced for preventing cancer pathologies together with information and awareness-raising campaigns very rarely take account of the work dimension. However, data indicate that the workplace should be of central focus in the fight against cancer. According to figures taken from a study mentioned in an article by Finnish researcher Dr Takala, almost one in every three cases of lung cancer and almost one in five leukaemia cases can be attributed to occupational exposure.

Dr Takala, former Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), believes it is necessary to embark on a broad-reaching mobilisation campaign, in which the European Union could act as a driving force, essentially pointing out that, during last May’s conference devoted – under the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union – to occupational cancer, a number of governments had shown their willingness to move forward with these matters.

A proposal for the revision of the European Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive is currently under negotiation. The European Commission had committed itself to tabling proposals for 25 limit values in 2016 and to reaching a minimum total of 50 limit values in 2020. It has failed to meet its commitments: Only 13 limit values were proposed in May 2016, and another five will be proposed in January 2017. When asked about the fact that diesel particles did not end up on the list, Dr Takala challenged the Commission’s argument that diesel particles were no longer a concern as they were not emitted from the newer types of engine. ‘The Commission seems to think that employers change their machinery every five years, rather like motorists and their cars. Many old, high-polluting diesel engines are still and will continue to be in use for a number of years yet,’ he explained.

Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) with responsibility for health at work, supported the idea of an international campaign to be spearheaded by the European Union. ‘One of the main injustices in Europe is that workers see their lives cut short because of their work,’ she stated.

She was also keen to draw attention to the invisibility of occupational cancer affecting women, even though statistics show that men – because of labour market segregation – are the ones that pay the heaviest price. She referred in particular to the increasing number of studies recently which have found a link between night work and breast cancer and an increased risk of cancer among hairdressers.

The ETUC’s spokesperson also made clear that her organisation’s objective was still to adopt 50 binding limit values (rather than the 25 proposed by the Commission), as well as to broaden the scope of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive to include substances toxic to reproduction, and to adopt European legislation safeguarding workers against endocrine disruptors.

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