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30 March 2018

Spotlight on work-related skin cancers. Dermatologists tell the EU it’s ‘time to act’.

When it comes to occupational cancers, UV radiation is rarely highlighted as a major risk compared to other carcinogens such as solvents or toxic dust. On 27 March an association of dermatologists reminded policymakers that skin cancers are the most widespread form of work-related cancers in the European Union. They called on the European Union to improve the European legislation on workers’ health protection in order to strengthen prevention in the workplace and ensure more widespread recognition of skin cancers as work-related illnesses.

Skin cancers – melanoma and non-melanoma cancers – are cancers that can be prevented easily by implementing low-cost and technically simple measures. Nonetheless, outdoor workers know very little about, and indeed are barely aware of the risks they face when exposed to natural and artificial ultraviolet radiation at work. This was the main message delivered by Dr Swen Malte John, Professor of Dermatology at Osnabrück University (Germany) at a meeting in the European Parliament in Brussels that brought together professionals, policy-makers and other stakeholders.

To remedy this lack of awareness, and draw attention to the economic and human costs of occupational skin cancer, the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology has been campaigning in this area for a couple of years. Before three MEPs, Marita Ulvskog (S&D Group), Jens Gieseke and Alojz Peterle (EPP Group), Professor Malte called for an amendment of the Directive on the protection of workers from physical agents, legislation that had been revised in 2006 but that still excluded natural UV radiation from its scope.

Recent research carried out in Germany has shown that outdoor workers are exposed to more sunlight and therefore to more carcinogenic ultraviolet radiation than other workers. It seems that the damage to workers’ health caused by the sun has been underestimated throughout the European Union, but more specifically in Northern European countries. Dr Marc Wittlich (Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IFA)) assessed the number of instances of sunburn suffered in one year by a group of 1 000 workers in Germany, covering more than 200 occupations. The workers most affected were those working in sewer construction and in quarries.

Professor Matthias Augustin, Director of the Institute for Health Services Research in Dermatology and Nursing at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, had coordinated research aimed at evaluating the economic burden of occupational skin cancers in the EU and he discovered that the annual burden for health-care systems ranged from EUR 341 to 853 million per year. If intangible costs (social, emotional and human) were also included, this figure jumped to over EUR 2 billion a year. He concluded that the authorities would save a great deal of money by investing in much more ambitious prevention policies.

This study is complementary to a larger study published in November 2017 by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), the research and training institute of the European Trade Union Confederation. ‘Because occupational cancers are generally diagnosed when workers are retired, 98 % of the costs are supported by workers and their families’, observed Marian Schaapman, head of the ETUI Working Conditions, Health and Safety Unit, whose organisation had sponsored the event. In her view, it was time to shine a spotlight on the role played by work environments in the cancer epidemic of cancers: ‘up to 12 % of cancer cases are preventable because they are caused by exposure at work’.

Elke Schneider, representing the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, emphasised that skin cancers could also be caused by exposure to artificial sources of UV radiation in the workplace, for example during welding activities. Roisin Foster pointed out that in Northern Ireland melanoma cases among males were increasing by 4.2 % each year. Her organisation, Cancer Focus NI, had launched an information campaign in the building sector.

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