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Riitta Sauni: Stepping up fight against work-related cancer in Europe

Publication date 26.11.2019 9.15
Photo: Ministry of Social Affairs and Health

Every year in Europe, around 120 000 workers develop cancer and 80 000 die as a result of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals at work. Cancer accounts for an estimated 53% of all work-related deaths in the European Union and other developed countries. The fight against work-related cancer has been intensified in Europe in recent years.

Asbestos still the leading cause of work-related cancer

Lung cancer, mesothelioma (caused by asbestos exposure) and bladder cancer are the most common forms of cancer at the workplace. Industries carrying a high risk of cancer include construction sector, chemicals industry, car manufacturing, furniture industry, metal product manufacturing and metal processing.

The most common cause of work-related cancer is exposure to carcinogenic substances, or carcinogens. Most cancers have developed as a result of exposure to asbestos over past decades. Currently, exposure to chromium (VI) and nickel carries the highest risk of cancer.

Radiation, stress and other factors related to work organisation and conditions, too, have been linked to work-related cancer. There is also evidence that occupational exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals or nanomaterials may cause cancer.

EU legislation has been tightened in recent years

EU legislation has been updated by setting exposure limits for a number of different cancer-causing chemicals. Currently, there are exposure limits for 25 carcinogens, which means that workplaces should restrict the use of these substances.

In an initiative on safety and health at work, the European Commission has committed to protecting workers from work-related cancer. Pertaining to this objective, the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive has been amended by setting occupational exposure limits for the most common cancer-causing chemicals at European workplaces.

The Commission is in the process of amending the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive with four separate proposals, introducing new binding exposure limits for carcinogens.

The Commission has already published the first three proposals amending the directive, and they are being implemented by the member states. The fourth proposal amending the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive is underway, and the Commission is expected to publish it in early 2020.

Work-related cancer can be prevented

The most important aspect of preventing work-related cancer is to make sure that working conditions comply with regulations and guidelines. In principle, all work-related diseases could be prevented by ensuring workers safe and healthy working conditions.

Workplaces must identify carcinogenic substances and investigate exposure to them. There is no shortage of tools: there are a number of risk management methods already in place and new ones are continuously being developed. Moreover, there is a lot of research into cancer at work.

A majority of cancer deaths could be prevented with relatively simple measures. Exposure to carcinogens can be prevented using the same means that are employed to prevent any exposure to chemicals.

An important rule of thumb is that general safety measures must be in place before using personal protective equipment. The first task is, then, to investigate whether it is possible to prevent hazards and risk factors at their origin or whether it is possible to stop using cancer-causing chemicals altogether or replace them with less harmful substances. Are there any technical or organisational ways to reduce exposure? Personal protective equipment should be introduced only when all other options have been found inapplicable or inadequate.

Common problem – common solutions

Fighting against work-related cancer needs not only legislation, guidance and research, but also communication and exchange of information.

In 2016, the EU launched the Roadmap on Carcinogens, a campaign to reduce occupational exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Six key European organisations, the Commission and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) among them, signed a covenant committing them to raising awareness of the risks arising from exposure to carcinogens in the workplace and to exchanging good practices. Since then, a number of member states have joined the campaign.

During Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the member states and organisations participating in the campaign will meet in Helsinki to discuss the campaign’s achievements and future challenges. They will also exchange views on interfaces of chemicals legislation and occupational safety and health legislation and on using biomonitoring to assess exposure at the workplace.

After the Finnish Presidency, the Roadmap on Carcinogens campaign will be resumed during the German Presidency.

You, too, can sign up for the campaign as an individual or as part of your work community. Read more about signing up and the roadmap at the campaign website.

We can step up the fight against work-related cancer by working together and across borders.

Riitta Sauni, Senior Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health