It is estimated that there will be 1 300 000 cancer deaths in the European Union in 2012. In many countries, cancer is the leading cause of death among people under 65. Many of these deaths are the direct result of workers being exposed to carcinogens at work. The available evidence supports the view that at least 8% of cancer deaths are work-related. For some types of cancer, like lung or bladder cancer, the figure is even well above 10%. It is safe to say that cancer is now the main cause of “death by working conditions” in Europe.
Not all workplaces are equally affected by this cancer “epidemic”. Different national and European surveys and epidemiological studies have shown that manual workers are by far most exposed to carcinogens. They are much more likely than white-collar workers to be exposed to asbestos and a string of dangerous solvents produced by the petrochemical industry. Construction workers, for example, are particularly exposed to silica, sunshine and hardwood dust, which are now known to be carcinogens.
But research into women’s cancer risks is sparse, and has probably led to work-related cancers being seriously underestimated. Very little research has been done into work-related factors involved in breast cancer, for example.
The ETUC and ETUI believe that prevention must be the main focus of any trade union strategy to tackle occupational cancers. EU law hands workers good tools geared to the specific aim of reducing or eliminating workplace carcinogens. The problem is that workers are still fairly unfamiliar with them and few employers are fulfilling their legal obligations. As a result, a number of national surveys of workers have found that while industrial employment is shrinking, the number of workers exposed to carcinogens is not going down. This means that real grassroots union action is needed along with work to further improve the EU legal framework for protecting workers against carcinogens.
On 13 May the European Commission presented a proposal for a revision of the directive on carcinogenic and mutagenic agents (2004/37/EC). Concretely, it proposes adding new occupational exposure limit values (OELVs) or changing the existing values to reduce exposure to 13 priority agents. Some of these 13 agents, such as respirable crystalline silica (RCS), chromium (VI) compounds, hard wood dusts or hydrazine, concern a very large number of workers.
Tony Musu (ETUI), Laurent Vogel (ETUI) and Henning Wriedt (Beratungs- und Informationsstelle Arbeit & Gesundheit, Hamburg)
Henning Wriedt (Occupational Health & Safety Advice Centre, Hamburg, Germany)