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Re-think needed on workplace cancers

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Cancers are responsible for well over half of the deaths caused through work in the EU.

In the UK the HSE estimates that there are 8,000 deaths every year from work-related cancer (although the TUC has always argued that the number is actually considerably higher).

You would have thought therefore that it would be a number one priority for the European Commission when they are considering what they can do on health and safety, so it is good that the Commission is consulting on proposed changes to the main regulations on carcinogens. It is called the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. At the same time they are planning to introduce new maximum exposure limits (called OELs) for a small number of carcinogens.

This is long overdue as there is certainly a lot wrong with the Directive and the European Trade Unions have been calling for an extension of it for many years. However just making a few changes to the Directive, while welcome is not enough.

If you look at the main causes of cancer caused by work, most of them are not covered by the directive. The biggest cause of work-related cancers is of course the sun, and although the vast majority of skin cancers are treatable, it can be easily prevented. Yet it is not covered by the European Directive and few employers take any measures to protect outdoor workers. Asbestos is the biggest cause of workplace death and in the UK causes over 5,000 deaths a year, but it is covered by a different Directive which allows employers to “manage” asbestos rather than remove it. Shift work is also considered to be a significant cause of breast cancer, with an estimated 700 cases a year caused by work, yet the European Directive on carcinogens does not even recognise it. Other big killers such as diesel exhaust, radon and tobacco smoke (still a big problem in many European workplaces) are not covered by exposure limits in the directive.

In fact I estimate that over 70% of cancer cases are caused by exposure to carcinogens that are not covered by the European carcinogens directive.

Even for those that are, often the exposure limits are completely inadequate. Take silica, which is a huge problem in construction and quarrying. The European Commission is introducing a new maximum exposure limit that is at the same level as the current UK one, yet the US agreed last year to a level half of that, and other EU countries have much lower levels. In the UK, despite having this level for decades, around 800 people a year still die because of silica exposure. It is estimated that the new EU exposure limit will mean that 2.5 per cent of those exposed at that level will develop silicosis after 15 years. How can anyone think that that is acceptable?

The Commission needs a proper strategy for dealing with cancers based on the principle that no workers should be exposed to carcinogens because of their work. They should put much more emphasis on removal and substitution, rather than just maximum exposure limits. Simply messing around with the Directive and adding a few new exposure limits for chemicals that are either rarely used or for which there are already suitable substitutes is not going to cut the massive death toll from cancer that British and European workers face.

We need regulations that are going to force employers to safely remove asbestos, rather than just “manage” it, and we need strong regulation on dealing with protection from other major issues such as sift work and diesel exhaust.

Of course it is not just the regulations that need sorted out, it is also enforcement. At present, employers are meant to remove carcinogens where practical and, if they cannot prevent exposure though other means regardless of whether there is an exposure limit, but most employers reckon that if they are operating at below the maximum limit that is enough, and regulators seem to accept that.

If you want to look at how you can help prevent cancers in your workplace, the TUC has some guidance for safety representatives on dealing with workplace cancers. In addition, there is a “webinar” on Thursday afternoon where I will be discussing the whole issue of occupational cancers. If you want to take part then you can register here.

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