BOHS has backed a call for European and international collaboration to eliminate occupational cancer, which is “rapidly becoming the biggest killer at places of work in most countries”.
The call was made in a new working paper entitled Eliminating Occupational Cancer in Europe and Globally, written by Professor Jukka Takala, former Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and published by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). The working paper makes the following key points.
Cancer at work is a serious but preventable disease, which is rapidly becoming the biggest killer at places of work in most countries. Previous global estimates on occupational cancers established that 32% of the deaths in the world related to work are associated with cancers. The paper warns, however, that occupational cancers are quite rapidly being globalised and in many industrialising countries, the percentage of occupational cancer deaths among all work-related deaths is approaching that of the high-income countries. For example, in the EU, occupational cancer deaths are already at 53% of all work-related deaths.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 666,000 deaths are caused by occupational cancer globally every year – double that of occupational accidents. In the EU, 102,500 occupational cancer deaths take place each year, 20 times the number caused by occupational accidents. The UK’s share of this burden is estimated at 13,330. There is no doubt that cancer is the biggest killer at places of work in high-income countries.
Research has shown that the 10 most important occupational carcinogens account for around 85% of all occupational cancer cases in the UK. A hierarchy of elimination and control exists to protect workers and, in theory, occupational cancer could be completely preventable. Despite this, however, cases of work-related cancer still occur.
According to the EU Carcinogen Exposure (CAREX) database, occupational carcinogens affect one in five workers in the EU, while other research estimates that 23% of those employed in Europe are exposed to carcinogens.
In the UK, research by epidemiologist Dr Lesley Rushton OBE suggests there are at least 8,000 deaths each year due to occupational cancer, with over 4,000 of these being asbestos-related. The report warns that it is not just past exposure to asbestos that creates these problems, and that asbestos will be present in European working life for “decades” into the future, requiring proper regulation, management and removal.
Dr Adrian Hirst, President of the Chartered Society for worker health protection, said: “BOHS fully supports this important call for a more ambitious target with regard to occupational cancer. It also agrees that with today’s solutions, most or all of occupational cancer deaths and lost years of life can be eliminated. In practical terms, evidence-based policies and practices have been shown to produce results in tackling occupational cancer. These can and should be implemented by means of Europe-wide and international collaboration.
For all of these reasons, Professor Jukka Takala is absolutely correct to argue that the need for further research into occupational cancer cannot be used as an excuse for doing nothing.
Eliminating Occupational Cancer in Europe and Globally can be accessed: https://www.etui.org/Publications2/Working-Papers/Eliminating-occupational-cancer-in-Europe-and-globally .