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. In many countries, cancer is the leading cause of death among people under 65. 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 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 for protecting workers against carcinogens.

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.

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Tony Musu Senior Researcher


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

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