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25 September 2013

10% of French workers still exposed to cancer-causing chemicals

The share of French workers exposed to carcinogens fell from 13% to 10% between 2003 and 2010, reports the SUMER survey. Multiple exposures are common and mainly found among ​​maintenance, building and civil engineering workers. The incidence of exposure is higher among men than women. Manual labourers account for two-thirds of the exposed workers although making up only 29% of the total workforce. The highest incidence rates are found in building (about 32% of workers are exposed), followed by manufacturing (17.2%), agriculture (13.5%) and the service sector (6. 4%).

The decrease probably reflects the effects of tighter laws and a health and safety drive that is starting to pay off after the asbestos scandal which rocked France. But there are still big failings in the organization of prevention. Collective protection (apart from workplace ventilation) has been put in place only for 21% of exposed workers, and closed system working has been organised for only 1% of these. The carcinogens that workers are most exposed to are diesel exhaust, mineral oils, wood dust, crystalline silica and formaldehyde. Much bigger progress has been made in big firms (a 6% reduction in exposed workers) than in firms with fewer than 10 employees where progress is on the low side (1% reduction).

The SUMER survey is one of the main national working conditions surveys, first done in 1987. It is repeated every seven years and is based on in-depth questionnaire-based interviews of employees by occupational doctors. In 2010, 50,000 employees were quizzed by 2,300 doctors.

There are no comprehensive up-to-date Europe-wide data. The last European survey (CAREX) dates from the 1990s.

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