Some 40 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.

Paraphrasing Clemenceau, Laurent Vogel opened the seminar by stating that: 'Health is too important to leave to the experts'. The ETUI researcher justified his provocative statement by the fact that epidemiological studies and other research into working conditions have not yet sparked public debate about the considerable impact that work has on our health.

The scientific and institutional instruments that currently exist are not sufficient, as illustrated by the official figures on occupational diseases, which underestimate these illnesses in all European countries. Existing measures have unfortunately tended to ignore actual working conditions, leave out workers who have retired or been forced to give up work due to a deterioration in their health, and dismiss the gender dimension (in Belgium 90% of recognised occupational diseases affect men).

Laurent Vogel called for the perception of workers to be taken into account in scientific work. However, to make the impact of work on health visible, a coalition between researchers and workers is needed so that there can be a balance of power with those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

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 20 cancer survivors. In this way they were able to show that dockers had suffered exposure to a range of carcinogenic substances.

'We did not find a single case of a docker not having been exposed to at least four carcinogens. We identified that some of them had been exposed to 25 carcinogenic substances throughout their occupational history', commented Véronique Daubas-Letourneux from the University of Angers.

This initiative arose out of the momentum created by the GISCOP 93 project, which was launched in the early 2000s in the French department of Seine-Saint-Denis. This project highlighted the occupational origin of a number of cancers occurring in this industrial department located to the north-east of Paris. It grew out of a movement of local trade unions, doctors, mutual insurance companies and researchers linked to the University of Paris XIII, among others. The latter reconstructed the occupational history of around 1 200 patients and tried to identify the various carcinogens to which they had been exposed in the workplace. The investigation established that 89% of men and 64% of women surveyed had been exposed to at least one carcinogen.

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. Over 1 000 fishermen took part in the investigation. In the Apulia region, in the south of the peninsula, 89 cases of occupational illness were recognised out of a total of 141 declarations, which was welcomed by Marco Bottazzi, an occupational doctor with INCA (read the interview in the box). The project also led to herniated discs among lorry drivers being added to the list of occupational diseases.

In Belgium, an investigation using the same methodology (based on the 'Nordic questionnaire') 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.

The head of this service, Marian Schaapman, presented the highly detailed research work carried out by her service, based on the cases of two workers whose health has been irreparably affected by their work.

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.

In the Basque Country, Comisiones Obreras has highlighted the problem of silicosis in the construction industry. Far from belonging to the past, this illness continues to claim many victims. The arrival on the market of new products containing much higher concentrations of silica than traditional materials could cause new tragedies (see the box, p. 40).

These examples show that trade unions are in a position to act as 'whistle-blowers' and prevent workers from being blackmailed over their jobs, as has happened too often in the past: think back, for example, to the asbestos tragedy.

Due to their indisputable practical knowledge, workers are the leading experts on their work. As a result, greater attention should be paid to them in scientific work on the issue of occupational health and safety, and more generally working conditions. This was precisely the intention of the seminar organised by the ETUI with the association Santé & Solidarité ( Other initiatives will follow in the coming months•.

More information

Weiler N. (2014) Nantes/Saint-Nazaire dockers battle for health, HesaMag, 10, 40-43.

Heuts P. (2013) Dutch FNV union makes employers pay up for work-related diseases, HesaMag, 7, 35-40.

Grégoire D. (2010) MSDs: action-oriented research helps unions to break the silence, HesaMag, 2, 32-35.

Special Report. Work-related cancers: seeing through the smokescreen, Hesa Newsletter, 34, June 2008, 13-26.

From the unions

Table of contents

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