European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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26 February 2015

Making occupational illness visible: a call for a coalition between scientists and workers

Some forty trade unionists and researchers coming principally from Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Spain and Italy took part in a seminar organised jointly by the ETUI and the Belgian association Santé & Solidarité. The purpose of the event was to present projects involving participation by both researchers and workers in the service of a common goal, namely, to make the impact of work on health visible. Of some 30 initiatives submitted to the organisers following a call for proposals, seven were selected and presented on 30 January in Brussels.

In an opening presentation, ETUI researcher Laurent Vogel deplored the fact that the scientific and institutional instruments in place to date have not served to promote public awareness of the considerable impact exerted by our work on our health. He pointed out that the official occupational disease statistics represent merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the myriad links between work and ill health. Existing provision in this sphere fails to tackle numerous relevant aspects and issues such as the true state of working conditions, the gender dimension, the fate of workers excluded from work on grounds of ill health, or of those who have already entered retirement.

Another important gap relates to awareness-raising among workers in relation to the health implications of their occupational activity. For this reason, Mr Vogel called for a coalition between researchers and workers designed to make this frequently neglected dimension of the situation more visible.

The first of the initiatives presented on 30 January provides a good illustration of the ETUI researcher’s point. It related to a research project on occupational cancers that grew out of a movement of dockworkers at Nantes-Saint-Nazaire. Having noted a high number of cancers among their co-workers, a group of dockers initially carried out their own enquiry. This confirmed cases of lung, prostate and kidney cancer, among others. A sociologists’ collective took the work further, conducting an in-depth investigation designed to reconstruct the occupational history of some twenty cancer survivors. In this way they were able to show that dockers had suffered exposure to a range of carcinogenic substances.

In Italy, the INCA, an occupational welfare service linked to one of the Italian trade union confederations, the CGIL, conducted a wide-ranging investigation on musculoskeletal disorders in sectors as diverse as footwear, fisheries, motor manufacturing, wholesale and retailing, etc.

In Belgium an investigation using the same methodology was conducted among cleaners, retail and wholesale workers and industrial maintenance workers in the Charleroi area.

In The Netherlands, which has no official system for the recognition of occupational disease, a service set up by the FNV trade union confederation offers support to victims of occupational disease in their legal fight for damages.

In the autonomous community of Asturias, in northern Spain, the Comisiones Obreras trade union launched a protest movement against occupational cancers. The mobilisation resulted in the identification of 680 cases of cancer possibly linked to work, 5.6% of which were recognised as occupational diseases proper and 11.7% as in some way linked to the workplace.

Speakers' presentations:

Articles published in the HesaMag in relation with the issue:

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