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:


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 – why is the link not being recognized?

6 December 2018
Conference panel

Cancer is the leading cause of work-related mortalities in the EU and is responsible for 100,000 unnecessary deaths a year. Yet most research and policy on its causes and prevention still assume that it is mainly men who are affected, even though an increasing proportion of the victims are now women. The need to shift research priorities and better address workplace prevention to reflect changing occupational risks was the subject of an ETUI conference in Brussels in early December.

France: specialist building trades most affected by work-related cancers

21 June 2018

Specialist building and metalworking trades are those most affected by work-related cancers, according to a study by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) presented on 6 June in Marseille.

France: significant reduction in employment rate five years after cancer diagnosis

21 June 2018

On 20 June the French National Cancer Institute (INCa) and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) published the results of a study carried out in France in 2015 of 4 179 people between the ages of 23 and 87 who had been diagnosed with cancer five years previously. The study focused, in particular, on the disease’s impact on their working lives.

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

30 March 2018

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.


    ETUI Conference 'Work and Cancer', 14-15 November 2017


Tony Musu Senior Researcher


Laurent Vogel Senior Researcher


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