Spain warned by unions not to weaken cancer controls and sacrifice workers’ health

Europe’s top trade union body has condemned Spanish government proposals to reduce the protection for workers against cancer-causing substances.

The government plan is on the pretext of transposing the newly revised European Union (EU) directive on carcinogens or mutagens at work into national law.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is urging Spain’s caretaker government to abandon the plan to increase the exposure limits for the workplace carcinogens crystalline silica, acrylamide and bromoethylene.

“Sacrificing workers’ health on the altar of competitiveness is unacceptable,” said ETUC deputy general secretary Per Hilmersson. “It is unthinkable to subsidise companies by allowing them to increase workers’ exposure to cancer-causing substances, and pass the healthcare and others costs to families and society. EU directives on occupational health and safety only define minimum standards. Member States should maintain or have higher levels of protection for workers, not reduce standards to the EU minimum.”

For crystalline silica, the current Spanish occupational exposure limit value is 0.05 mg/m³, in line with the US. However, the draft decree to transpose the EU directive allows for twice as much exposure, with the proposed new level set a 0.1mg/m³.

ETUC says the scientific literature shows that there is a significant mortality rate at this level, from silicosis, lung cancer and other health effects. Researchers have calculated the rate of potentially fatal silicosis is six times higher at the weaker 0.1mg/m³ standard.

For acrylamide, which causes pancreatic cancer, the Spanish government intends to triple the maximum exposure level. For bromoethylene, which causes liver cancer, the government would allow the exposure threshold to be doubled.

UK campaign for urgent cut to silica dust limit

The UK safety regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is being urged to halve the workplace exposure limit for silica dust, a move it says will save 4,000 lives a year.

The call, which is backed by unions and the national Hazards Campaign, comes in a  new ‘Choked’ report from Hazards magazine.

The report presents evidence for cutting the current UK legal limit of 0.1 mg/m3 for respirable crystalline silica to no more than 0.05 mg/m3, a move the report says would dramatically reduce the incidence of the lung scarring occupational disease silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases and other silica-related conditions.

Hazards reviewed the international scientific literature and internal HSE documents to calculate the annual excess silica-related death toll resulting from HSE’s repeat refusal to switch to and enforce the tighter standard, instead sticking with a level it admits comes with “significant risks”.

The report notes: “In the UK, in a display of breathtaking complacency, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is sticking to its guns – a strategy set to choke the life out of another generation of workers.”

It reveals that HSE’s own internal reports estimate the silicosis risk for workers is six times higher at the current HSE limit of 0.1 mg/m3, calculated at 30 cases per 100 workers exposed compared to just five per 100 at the tighter 0.05 mg/m3 standard. The United States and a number of other jurisdictions already work to the safer standard.

The campaign is asking supporters inside and outside the UK to send an online postcard to Sarah Albon, the new chief executive of the HSE. Over 600,000 workers in the UK are regularly exposed to silica at work which is created when cutting, grinding drilling or polishing, natural substances such as rocks and sand and is a major constituent in bricks, tiles and concrete and materials.

At least one-in-five workers in these jobs – and in some like stonemasonry and construction, possibly half – are exposed at or above the current deadly UK limit.

HSE has a worrying track record on silica. On 1 January 1992, under pressure from the quarrying industry, HSE introduced a weaker permissible exposure standard for crystalline silica of 0.4mg/m3.

The UK only reverted to the 0.1mg/m3 standard in 2006, a level it admits comes with ‘significant risks’ but several times safer than the lung-shredding, suffocating extreme exposures it sanctioned for over a decade.

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UK union launches silica exposure register to protect workers

UK construction union Unite has launched an online register to allow workers who have been exposed to dangerous silica dust to record their exposure. The union says this will assist with potential future legal cases if they experience long term health problems, including cancer.

Unite says industries where workers are potentially exposed to respirable crystalline silica include mining, quarrying, foundries, potteries, ceramics, glass manufacturing, stonemasonry, construction and industries using silica flour. Inhaling large amounts of silica dust over a long period can cause silicosis, a frequently fatal lung-scarring disease.

It can also lead to other potentially fatal illnesses including lung and other cancers, silicotuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney and autoimmune diseases.

Unite national health and safety adviser Bud Hudspith said: “Unfortunately many employers remain willing to play fast and loose with the health of their workers. Unite’s primary aim is to ensure employers prevent silicosis and lung cancer through the removal or strict control of silica dust.”

The silica exposure register was developed in Unite’s south east region, where members of the union employed at cable producer Prysmian Cables in Hampshire raised concerns about the long-term welfare of workers. Michael Hobbs, Unite’s senior steward at Prysmian Cables, said: “The silica register is long overdue; the threat of exposure is a millstone round the necks of workers in many different sectors. Educating and warning workers about the dangers of airborne dust will undoubtedly save lives, so credit should be given to everyone behind launching this much needed campaign.”

Unions in the UK have been highly critical of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for defending the existing UK occupational exposure standard of 0.1mg/m3, five times the level proposed by authorities in the Australian state of Victoria and twice the current US limit.

Unite has produced a short film to explain how the register operates and the dangers of inhaling silica dust.

Australian unions ramp up push for safer silica standard

An official review of Australia’s respirable silica exposure standard is an opportunity to save lives – but the federal proposals are not protective enough and are being unacceptably delayed, the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) has said.

The union body warned that Safe Work Australia’s decision to take three years to halve the current respirable crystalline silica exposure standard to 0.05mg/m3  “does nothing to stem the tsunami of silicosis currently sweeping Australian workplaces.”

VTHC added: “This is a decision that flies in the face of recommendations from the Cancer Council, occupational health and safety experts in Australian Unions and international scientific research that called for an exposure standard of 0.02mg/m3.”

The state union body has vowed to campaign for the state government to introduce a tighter standard of 0.02 mg/m3, “making the state a world-leader on safety standards in this area.” Exposure to airborne silica is linked to diseases including silicosis, a potentially fatal lung scarring disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

In 2011 almost 600,000 Australians were exposed to silica dust whilst working; VTHC said it is estimated that 5,758 of them will develop lung cancer over the course of their life. The Victorian state government is supporting a move to the tighter 0.02 mg/m3 standard.

The move has the backing of unions, lawyers and medical experts in Victoria. Dr Paul Sutton, VTHC’s lead occupational health and safety organiser, commented: “This is a black day for stonemasons and all workers around the country exposed to silica dust. Safe Work Australia’s decision ignores international scientific evidence and Cancer Council recommendations. The three-year implementation is particularly galling because workers are being exposed to deadly, toxic silica dust today.”

He added: “The Victorian Trades Hall Council will not give up the fight for a safe silica standard here in Victoria.”

The VTHC call for a tighter 0.02 mg/m3 standard has been echoed by unions in Western Australia. Unions WA assistant secretary Owen Whittle said: “Unions are emphatic that this new standard must be adopted and that work and safety agencies monitor compliance as well as provision of all necessary safe practices such as wet cutting to reduce airborne silica dust, good ventilation in areas where working, wearing of respiration protective equipment, among other practices.”

Unions in the UK have been highly critical of the Health and Safety Executive for defending the current 0.1mg/m3 occupational exposure limit, five times the level proposed in Victoria and twice the level current in force in the USA.

Night shift work ‘probably’ causes cancer in humans

The available evidence suggests working night shifts “probably” causes cancer in humans, a group of top experts has concluded.

In June 2019, the working group of 27 scientists from 16 countries met at the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to finalise the evaluation of the carcinogenicity of night shift work. The working group included scientists whose work had previously reached divergent conclusions, some sceptical of a link between night shifts and breast cancer and some strongly supportive of an association.

The group assessment will now become the official IARC cancer rating for night shift work, and will be published in volume 124 of the IARC Monographs.

Writing in the Lancet Oncology in July 2019, the authors note: “Overall, the Working Group concluded that a positive association has been observed regarding night shift work and breast cancer; however, given the variability in findings between studies, bias could not be excluded as an explanation with reasonable confidence.”

They also noted studies “provide some evidence that night shiftwork is positively associated with risk of prostate and colorectal cancer; however, because the studies were few in number and the results lacked consistency, chance and bias could not be ruled out.”

The authors conclude: “In sum, the Working Group classified night shift work in Group 2A, ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, based on limited evidence of cancer in humans, sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals, and strong mechanistic evidence in experimental animals.”

In a 24-7 economy, night work could be a growing threat to health. A TUC analysis of official figures last year indicated the number of people working night shifts in the UK has increased by more than 150,000 over the past five years. The union body said the number working nights now stands at more than 3 million workers – or one in nine of the total UK workforce.

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UK union GMB to campaign on work-related bladder cancer

The UK union GMB is to launch an awareness campaign on the link between work in certain industries and bladder cancer.

The decision at the union’s annual Congress commits it to target a problem it says particularly affects workers in the male-dominated chemical dye and rubber industries. However, the union said the chemicals linked to bladder cancer also occur “in hair dyes, paints, fungicides, cigarette smoke, plastics, pollutant emissions from industrial installations, and metal and motor vehicle exhausts, which can affect both male and females.”

GMB says there are an estimated 100,000 men and women living with bladder cancer in the UK and approximately 15,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, making it the fifth most common cancer overall.

GMB London’s regional secretary, Warren Kenny, said: “Occupational bladder claims thousands of lives per year, and it is likely that official statistics are underestimated as there are many causes of the cancer, meaning the link to work is often not made. Due to the long latency before symptoms manifest, it is often perceived to be an older person’s condition. As such there has been little campaigning for preventative approaches and such an approach is long overdue.”

Kenny said the union would work with both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Fight Bladder Cancer campaign to “provide a much needed focus on this overlooked cancer and help to provide access to decision-makers in industry and government who can help address the shortage of research funding and poor prioritisation of bladder cancer.”

Samsung victim wins decade long fight for recognition

A victim of occupational cancer caused by toxic exposures while working at Samsung has won a decade long fight for compensation.

On 5 June 2019, Han Hye-kyung was notified her workers’ compensation claim had been approved by the South Korean compensation authority KCOMWEL.

Han, 41, was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 27 in 2005. Four years earlier, in 2001, she had resigned from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, where she had handled hazardous chemicals while soldering together LCD parts for six years. Han was only 17-years-old and still in high school when she began to work at Samsung.

In 2009, Han, together with her single mother, Kim Si-nyeo, petitioned unsuccessfully for workers’ compensation. However, in 2017 South Korea’s supreme court ordered KCOMWEL to posthumously pay workers’ compensation to a Samsung worker who died of a brain tumour. This decision paved the way for Han to request the re-evaluation of her workers’ compensation case. Two years later KCOMWEL finally decided in Han’s favour.

Both Han and her mother Kim are active members of grassroots campaign group SHARPS, which has spearheaded the campaign for justice for Samsung’s occupational disease victims. Both have attended “countless” SHARPS pickets, protests and rallies.

Despite the family facing terrible hardship, they turned down a surreptitious 2013 offer from Samsung executives of KRW 1 billion (U$1m/£665,000) and full medical coverage, because the settlement was conditional on the family severing its ties with SHARPS.

Strong support in New Zealand for firefighter work cancer law

The New Zealand firefighters’ union (NZPFU) has said it has received ‘strong support’ in its campaign for official no-fault compensation for firefighters struck by a range of cancers. The union was speaking out after it enlisted the help of a Canadian union legal expert to promote the case for ‘presumptive’ legislation, where named cancers are presumed to be caused by work as a firefighter and compensated by the country’s no-fault Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

The New Zealand union praised the assistance it has received from Winnipeg Firefighters Union (UFFW) president Alex Forrest, a firefighter and lawyer and expert on firefighters’ cancer. NFPFU said with his help New Zealand was “well on the way to achieving cross-party support for presumptive legislation to recognise firefighters’ occupational cancers.”

The move would require a simple amendment of the compensation law to recognise an inclusive list of firefighters’ cancers as qualifying for payouts. To coincide with the Canadian expert’s visit, the union organised a presentation to MPs, who NZPFU said “had great questions and all left supportive of our campaign,” followed by a parliamentary lobby.

Presumptive cancer lists in North America cover compensation for brain, bladder, ureter, kidney, colorectal, oesophageal, breast, testicular, prostate, lung, skin, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

South Korean government study confirms microchip factory cancer risk

Female workers at South Korean semiconductor plants face a 1.59 times higher risk of contracting leukaemia and a 2.8 times higher risk of dying from the disease than other workers, according to the findings of the country’s first ever government backed study.

The risk of female workers in the industry dying from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was 3.7 times higher. Study finding presented by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) also identified elevated risk ratios for thyroid cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, brain and central nervous system cancer, and kidney cancer.

The 10-year epidemiological study examined 201,057 current and former workers at six semiconductor companies, including Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Its findings provide a conclusive official confirmation of claims made over the past decade by workers’ rights campaigners.

SHARPS, the campaign group that has fought a high profile campaign for semiconductor factory occupational disease victims, said the risks may have been underestimated as in-house subcontracted workers were not included in the analysis.

“In the cases of stomach, breast, and thyroid cancer, they need to examine whether the increases [in reports] are the result of night-time shift work or the effects of radiation exposure [at factories] rather than simply being due to more opportunities for health checks,” the group added.

Hwang Sang-gi, the SHARPS president and father of Samsung occupational cancer victim Hwang Yu-mi, said campaigners had been vindicated.

“When our Yu-mi applied for industrial accident recognition in 2007, Samsung insisted [her leukaemia] was an isolated case, and the government just parroted that position, so they didn’t end up taking responsibility. Now it has been proven that what we said 10 years ago is 100 per cent correct,” he said.

 
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Monsanto hit by new cancer and surveillance exposure

Global agrochemicals giant Monsanto has faced a double hit, ordered to make another massive cancer compensation payout and accused of compiling a potentially illegal dossier on its opponents.

On 13 May 2019, a jury in California awarded more than $2bn (£1.5bn) to a couple who said the best-selling weedkiller Roundup was responsible for their cancer. It is the third time that the German pharmaceutical group Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, has been ordered to pay damages over the glyphosate-based herbicide.

The jury ruled the company had acted negligently, failing to warn of the risks associated with the product. Bayer denied the allegations and says it will appeal. It insists that Roundup is safe to use.

The jury in Oakland, California, said Bayer was liable for plaintiffs Alva and Alberta Pilliod contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after they used the product for years to landscape their home and other properties. “The jury saw for themselves internal company documents demonstrating that, from day one, Monsanto has never had any interest in finding out whether Roundup is safe,” said their counsel, Brent Wisner.

The jury awarded each of them $1bn in punitive damages as well as a total of $55m in compensatory damages. Bayer now faces more than 13,400 US lawsuits over Roundup’s alleged cancer risk.

The court award came after the French newspaper Le Monde  revealed on 9 May 2019 that government officials in the country are investigating a potentially illegal file compiled by Monsanto on critics of its chemicals and genetically modified crops.

The document was prepared for the company by PR agency Fleishman Hillard, which in 2018 also “helped Monsanto Company (now part of Bayer) develop their 2017 Sustainability Report: Growing Better Together.”

The PR company’s website recommends firms ‘get smart’ on reporting, with new approaches “ushering in an era of hybrid reporting that’s tailored to the particular needs of companies and their stakeholders.

Bayer says it has now dropped the global public relations firm.

A continually-updated, annotated bibliography of occupational cancer research produced by Hazards magazine, the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).