EU Parliament urged to beef up fight against occupational cancer

The former head of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has urged Parliament to beef up draft legislation designed to cut the rising death toll caused by occupational cancer.

Parliament has been urged to beef up the fight against occupational cancer | Photo credit: Fotolia

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

16 Dec 2016

Jukka Takala wants MEPs to improve the Commission's proposal on the revision of the carcinogens and mutagens directive.

MEPs were able to submit amendments to the Commission proposal for the revision of the directive until 14 December. On 28 February, Parliament's employment and social affairs committee is expected to vote on the proposal. The Commission is expected to publish an additional list of 12 substances to be included in the directive by the end of 2016.

Speaking in Brussels on Friday, Takala said the Commission proposal for the revision of the directive only contains exposure limits for a small number of workplace carcinogens and even those limits are set far too high to effectively protect workers from serious health hazards.


"The Commission has come up with this new proposal which is good but we in the EU are still making very slow progress in this area," said Takala, the keynote speaker at a conference on occupational cancer.

He added, "This directive already represents something of a compromise and we are yet to see the final outcome will be like.

"But as the European Parliament is now starting discussions on amending the Commission proposal there remains an opportunity - and an obligation - for parliamentarians to strengthen the directive so that it contains exposure limits for the highest possible number of workplace carcinogens."

Takala, who left the EU agency five years ago, was presenting the latest findings on occupational cancer.

The carcinogens to which workers are generally exposed are solar radiation, passive smoking, crystalline silica, diesel engine exhausts, radon, wood dust and lead.

The sectors where exposure to carcinogens is highest are forestry work, fishing, mining, the wood and furniture industry, construction and air transport.

Takala said that latest data shows that some 100,000 people die from occupational cancer in EU member states each year.

He cited research from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) showing that occupational cancer is the biggest work-related cause of death in the EU28 and is gradually reaching the same status in the rest of the world. 

"The number of casualties continues to rise. Recently it has been argued that the causes of cancer are 'random' and very little can be done to prevent it," added Takala, a renowned international occupational health expert.

"This view has been strongly rejected by the scientific community, the World Health Organisation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the International Commission on Occupational Health and others who consider it unethical to accept high levels of workplace exposures that could be tackled systematically," he said.

Takala added, "There is a need for policies to eliminate occupational exposures both in Europe and globally. People say you cannot prevent cancer but you can help prevent occupational cancer and that is why we need a programme to eliminate it in time.

"This will benefit the health of workers and also the economy because treating cancer is, of course, very expensive."

Takala, now based in Singapore with the Workplace Safety and Health Institute, said the best way of cutting the rising death toll from occupational cancer was to ensure that new limits are introduced for the "highest possible" number of workplace carcinogens.

"The EU is fully aware of the problem but, over the years, policymakers appear to have had little interest in dealing with it.

"I realise the Commission has produced a new directive but I want the parliament to now ensure that it contains more - and stricter - regulatory exposure limits."

The conference was told of latest research showing that for many categories of workers their working conditions are not such as to enable them to continue working up to retirement age.

Fewer than half of manual workers think their working conditions will allow them to keep doing the same job at the age of 60.

The presentation was based on Takala's recent ETUI working paper, EU presidency conference materials on occupational carcinogens and data from the Global Burden of Injury and Disease (GBD).

Laurent Vogel, of the European Trade Union Institute, who has authored a study on the issue, said the "litmus test" of the EU's intentions is the current legislation on occupational cancers.

"The Commission cannot claim member states are against it; most of them want better community legislation," he said.

He also condemned José Manuel Barroso, saying that during his tenure as President of the Commission new health and safety law making was "at a virtual standstill."

Meanwhile, campaigners have accused industry of using tactics to "hollow out" the EU's revision of the carcinogens and mutagens directive

A report by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) called on the EU to adopt a 'zero harm' target in workplaces and said, "The current state of inactivity could lead to a disaster that would also affect the younger generation of workers, a phenomenon that has already been demonstrated by past failures."

CEO says that while cancer research and treatments are ever advancing, industry lobbying against better protection from workplace-related cancers has been "intense."

It says that in the EU alone, over 100,000 people a year die due to "insufficient" protection against cancer-causing substances in the workplace, making the industries' fight against stricter EU regulation of these carcinogens a "severe threat" to public health.

CEO accused industry lobbyists of "framing employee protection against work-related cancers as an 'unnecessary' burden on companies."

The analysis is based in response to Corporate Europe Observatory's access to documents requests and reveals, says CEO, the ways in which industry is using the "rhetoric and tools" of the Commission's 'better regulation' agenda to "pre-empt, delay, and weaken rules that are urgently needed to address occupational cancer rates."

Researcher Rachel Tansey, who authored the report for CEO, said, "The idea that industry profit margins could ever be used to justify workers' exposure to cancer-causing substances is a huge injustice, and one that costs thousands of lives every year.

"But industry lobbies still argue that enforceable exposure limits on workplace carcinogens like silica dust would dent their competitiveness - they claim 'voluntary' initiatives are enough. 

"Since the costs of occupational cancers are burdened onto the victims and society, industry has little incentive to act. So that is why we need strong rules.

"Thankfully, the European Parliament still has the chance to improve the Commission's proposal and give priority to the health of workers over employers' profits."


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