European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Occupational cancers

In 2014, almost 1.3 million people died from cancer in the EU-28, which equates to more than one quarter (26.4 %) of the total number of deaths. 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%. With more than 100 000 deaths per year, occupational cancers are the leading cause of death at work in the EU.

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.

On 11 May 2016, 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. On 12 December 2017, the European Parliament and the Council adopted the new legislation in relation with the first phase of the revision of the 2004 directive. The text must be transposed into the national legislations of the EU Member States by 2019.

Read more:


The Spanish government reconsiders workers’ protection from carcinogens

11 October 2019
Pool Moncloa/J.M. Cuadrado

Under the pretext of transposing a European directive and boosting the competitiveness of Spanish companies, Spain’s caretaker government is proposing to reduce the protection levels for carcinogens, thereby potentially impacting exposed workers’ health.

An ETUI publication on occupational health translated into Brazilian Portuguese

30 January 2019
Arte da prevençao cover

In 2018, the Fondation Fundacentro, the Brazilian federal agency responsible for occupational health, decided to publish a Brazilian Portuguese translation of an ETUI book on workplace prevention via posters. The ETUI is happy to thus contribute to the discussion on the importance of trade union action on occupational health.

Enormous gaps identified in the recognition of occupational cancers in Europe

18 December 2018
eurogip logo

A new report by EUROGIP presents an analysis of the extent to which occupational cancers are recognised in nine European countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. It also looks at the schemes for identifying occupational cancers, especially via monitoring the health of people exposed to carcinogens in the course of their working careers.

Trade union networks: a response to occupational health in small firms?

17 December 2018

The results of a project on best practices for organising worker representation for health and safety were presented at a seminar organised in Brussels on 29 November. This seminar allowed trade union activists to describe their day-to-day experiences in the countries covered by the project. It also included a fascinating presentation on the results of the research.

France: a trade union campaign on the prevention of breast cancer

11 December 2018
doctor with patient

Several sectoral and regional branches of the CFDT have launched an ambitious campaign to raise awareness and mobilise people around the issue of breast cancer caused by work.


    Women, work and cancer: The Nordic occupational cancer study: how the analysis of data from the cancer registry can contribute to identify work-related cancer among women. Eero Pukkala, Finnish Cancer Registry, Institute for Statistical and Epidemiological Cancer Research, Finland


Tony Musu Senior Researcher


Laurent Vogel Senior Researcher


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