All posts by Rory O'Neill

Australian regulator’s silica plan will save lives – unions

Australia’s top union body ACTU has welcomed a report by the country’s national safety regulator recommending a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone.

The use of the product has been linked to especially damaging exposures to respirable crystalline silica, which can cause the lung scarring and progressive disease silicosis, lung cancer and autoimmune and other diseases.

The Safe Work Australia report followed broad consultation with business groups, engineered stone manufacturers and fabricators, unions and health experts. It also included detailed economic evaluation and an analysis of evidence from the best available science when developing its recommendation.

Safe Work Australia endorsed the medical and scientific evidence that lung diseases caused by engineered stone dust take less time to develop, are more severe and become worse quickly.

There were three options considered by Safe Work Australia:

  • Option 1  Prohibition on the use of all engineered stone
  • Option 2  Prohibition on the use of engineered stone containing 40% or more crystalline silica
  • Option 3  As for option 2, with an accompanying licensing scheme for PCBUs working with engineered stone containing less than 40% crystalline silica.

Given that scientific evidence found that even engineered stone with lower silica content posed unmanageable risks to the health and safety of workers, Safe Work Australia recommended a blanket ban of the product.

The report noted that engineered stone dust is very fine – nano scale – meaning it penetrates deep into the lungs of workers, with the dust containing resins, metals, pigments, and other forms of silica dust. Thus, even when workers cut and fabricate low-silica stone products, the very fine dust particles of silica that enter the lungs of workers cause diseases including silicosis.

Current laws have not protected workers, ACTU says – 1 in 4 engineered stone workers have contracted silicosis under the current framework. The report made clear that the costs to the community from the continued use of engineered stone far outweighed any benefits, and that the only way to protect future workers was to prohibit the use of engineered stone entirely.

The ACTU Executive this week joined the construction and mining union CFMEU in outlining the union movement’s intention to ban this deadly product, commonly used for kitchen and bathroom benchtops, if state governments had not acted by July next year.

“This recommendation by Safe Work Australia will save lives. We urge all governments to introduce it at the earliest opportunity. ” commented ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien.

“Silicosis and silica-related diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers. This report shows that there is no type of engineered stone that is safe for workers.

“No worker in Australia should have to plan their funeral and farewell their loved ones, all because of a lung disease they got from working with this deadly stone.

“The report made clear that there is no other option than an outright ban on engineered stone. Keeping this deadly product legal means more workers getting health problems and more workers dying.

“We welcome the decision earlier this year of WHS Ministers to introduce stronger silica rules covering all work. However, this report makes clear that to truly protect the health and wellbeing of workers, we must ban this deadly fashion product once and for all. ”

A joint statement supporting the action was signed by organisations including: Australian Institute of Health & Safety; Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienist; Cancer Council; Lung Foundation; Public Health Association of Australia; The Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine Inc; and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Australia is also planning to lower its current workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica from 0.05mg/m³. The current limit is half the 0.1mg/m³ level in the UK.

Great Britain’s safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has refused to improve the limit, despite both the US, Australia and other jurisdictions making evidence-based decisions to move to a standard at least twice as protective.

HSE has admitted six times more workers will develop silicosis at the less protective standard. Overall, several thousand additional deaths per year could result from the weaker standard.

IAFF calls for broad strategy to end fire fighter cancer

The union representing US firefighters is calling on the fire service, government, industry, and scientific community to unite in support of a broad strategy to combat fire fighter occupational cancer.

“All of us have lost friends to cancer – too many of them. Too many of our brothers and sisters gone far too soon. We need to do whatever it takes to end the scourge of cancer in the fire service,” International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Edward Kelly said at the 2023 US Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control.

Urging that time is of the essence, Kelly said a comprehensive fire fighter cancer prevention strategy is needed, one that invests in critical research programs, prioritizing the most dangerous cancer risks for fire fighters. Fighting occupational cancer must include cancer screenings for fire fighters, education, and training to help better understand increased risk, he said.

Kelly said national cancer presumption coverage should be available for all fire fighters diagnosed with cancer. Currently, U.S. states and Canadian provinces have different forms of presumption coverage. for the IAFF also supports the expansion of the Public Safety Officer Benefit (PSOB) Program to cover line-of-duty deaths and permanent disabilities due to occupational cancer.

“As fire fighters, we take risks; we knew that when we came on the job. We accept that we may die trying to save the lives of others. All we ask for in return is that you help us minimize the risk of dying needlessly and help us do our job as safely as possible,” Kelly said.

Hundreds of members of the fire service joined appointed and elected officials and academics for the daylong USFA Summit, held at the National Emergency Training Summit in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

President Joe Biden addressed attendees through a live feed. He praised fire fighters as “the heart of the community” and noted that too often “people don’t appreciate you until they need you.”

Biden said the Administration is doing everything possible to fund the fire service and make sure fire fighters have what they need to stay safe on the job. The President cited numerous ways his administration has supported the fire service, including:

  • $350 billion included in the American Rescue Plan for first responders.
  • 2023 budget request for $320 million in federal grants for new hires and equipment.
  • Support for presumptive cancer legislation and legislation to address toxic chemicals, including PFAS.
  • Support for the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, helping federal fire fighters access workers’ compensation; the Protecting America’s First Responders Act, which extends PSOB benefits; and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which supports wildland firefighting.

While noting progress is being made, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said more resources are needed to address the emerging challenges fire fighters confront, including more destructive wildfires, risks from lithium battery fires, mental health issues, and the urgent need to recruit and retain fire fighters.

“The emergencies to which a fire fighter responds are as varied as life itself. The character of the fire fighter who responds, however, is constant: courageous, devoted to duty, committed to community, willing to sacrifice,” said Mayorkas.

While the IAFF continues to fight for federal resources to combat occupational cancer, IAFF Chief of Field Services Patrick Morrison urged fire service leaders to do more. Saying, “We must advocate for ourselves,” Morrison noted that early cancer screenings can dramatically increase survival rates. He also urged all in attendance to encourage fire fighters to enroll in the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer, which will help improve the science behind fire fighter occupational cancer over time.

October 13, 2023
IAFF news release.



Work cancers in women go unstudied and unaddressed


Cancer studies have neglected the workplace risks faced by women. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill looks at new evidence of the damaging consequences for prevention, compensation and women’s health.

A rare study of occupational hazards and ovarian cancer has found new evidence that many common jobs undertaken by women are associated with an elevated risk.

After accounting for other risk factors, calculations using the Canadian job-exposure matrix (CANJEM) confirmed that working for 10 or more years as a hairdresser, barber, beautician and in related roles was associated with a three-fold higher risk, while employment for 10 or more years in accountancy was associated with a doubling in risk, and working in construction with a near tripling in risk.

Similarly, long term work in the clothing industry, including embroidery, was associated with an 85 per cent heightened risk of developing the disease while working in sales or retail was associated with heightened risks of 45 per cent and 59 per cent respectively.

Heightened risks of more than 40 per cent were observed for high cumulative exposure (8 or more years) – compared with none – to 18 different agents.

These included talcum powder; ammonia; hydrogen peroxide; hair dust; synthetic fibres; polyester fibres; organic dyes and pigments; cellulose; formaldehyde; propellant gases; naturally occurring chemicals in petrol and bleaches.

The authors of the study conclude their results “suggest that employment in certain occupations and specific occupational exposures may be associated with increased risks of ovarian cancer.”

Drs Melissa Friesen and Laura Beane Freeman of the US National Cancer Institute, in a linked commentary in the journal, note there are wider lessons from the study.

“The limited representation of women in occupational cancer research studies has been recognised for decades,” they write.

“Unfortunately, this remains true today for many cancer sites and workplace exposures despite the fact that in 2021 women made up 40 per cent of the global workforce, with percentages in some countries much higher.”

The commentary on the ovarian cancer study notes it “reminds us that while the lack of representation of women in occupational cancer studies – and indeed, even potential strategies to address this issue – have been long recognised, there is still a need for improvement in studying women’s occupational risks.

“By excluding women, we miss the opportunity to identify risk factors for female specific cancers, to evaluate whether sex-specific differences in risk occur, and to study exposures occurring in occupations held primarily by women.”

There is a price to pay. Occupational cancer compensation schemes rarely compensate women. For others, it is a deadly oversight.

Low level radiation risk ‘under-estimated’

The cancer risk resulting from ‘low level’ radiation exposures at work has been under-estimated, the UN’s top cancer agency has said.

Researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), working with institutions in France, Spain, the UK, and the USA, report that workers in nuclear facilities who are persistently exposed to low doses of ionizing radiation experience an increase in deaths due to cancer.

The study published in the BMJ has implications for all workers potentially exposed to ionising radiation, including those in the nuclear, military, weapons, offshore, health and engineering sectors.

“This major update of cancer risk in a large cohort of nuclear workers who were exposed to ionizing radiation provides additional evidence to strengthen radiation protection measures for workers and the general public,” said IARC’s Dr Mary Schubauer-Berigan.

“Protection against harmful effects of exposure to ionizing radiation is of primary interest as its use becomes more widespread in contemporary medical and occupational settings.”

Co-author, Dr David Richardson, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, added: “We wanted to strengthen the scientific basis for radiation protection by directly studying workers in settings where low-dose and low-dose-rate radiation exposures occur.”

The International Nuclear Workers Study (INWORKS) study followed up 309,932 workers in the nuclear industry.

This latest analysis estimated the cancer risk increased by 52 per cent for every unit of radiation (Gray; Gy) workers had absorbed.

But when the analysis was restricted to workers who had been exposed to the lowest cumulative doses of radiation (0-100 mGy), this approximately doubled the risk of death from solid cancers per unit Gy absorbed.

Richardson DB and others. Cancer mortality after low dose exposure to ionising radiation in workers in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (INWORKS): cohort study, BMJ, volume 382 :e074520, 2023.

IARC website.

DISCOUNTING WOMEN | Work cancers go unstudied and unaddressed

Cancer studies have neglected the workplace risks faced by women. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill looks at new evidence of the damaging consequences for prevention, compensation and women’s health.

A rare study of occupational hazards and ovarian cancer has found new evidence that many common jobs undertaken by women are associated with an elevated risk.

The authors of the University of Montreal study, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine in July 2023, note relatively few studies have evaluated the occupational hazards faced by women.

And those that have, have often failed to account for potentially influential factors, previous employment history, or have included relatively few participants, so limiting the findings, they say.

The UN’s top health and cancer agencies were accused in August 2023 of ‘institutional failure’ and of perpetuating the under-count of occupational cancers in women through “the publication of inaccurate statements about the adverse health effects of exposure to asbestos among females.”

Read the whole story here:


WHO accused of ‘failure’ on women’s work cancer

The UN’s top health and cancer agencies were accused in August 2023 of ‘institutional failure’ and of perpetuating the under-count of occupational cancers in women through “the publication of inaccurate statements about the adverse health effects of exposure to asbestos among females.”

A commentary in the Journal of Scientific Practice and Integrity by authors from universities in Italy, Germany, USA and Canada, notes that the most recent editions of the Classification of Tumours published by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) state that asbestos is rarely the cause of malignant mesothelioma (MM) – an aggressive and usually deadly cancer linked primarily to asbestos exposure – in females, “when, in fact, the epidemiologic literature shows that the risk of MM in females exposed to asbestos approaches that in males.

“While it is correct that the overall incidence of MM in females is lower than in males, the view that MM in females is not caused by asbestos is unsupported.

“This view results from an inadequate occupational history, the failure to recognise the importance of environmental exposures, and the misrepresentation of published literature by the selection of limited literature and biased bibliographies, often by authors with financial conflicting interests.”

They say despite “several fruitless attempts to correct the record” WHO has refused to amend the classification. They conclude the classification is “inconsistent with the published scientific literature, suggesting deliberate misrepresentation and raising the question of undisclosed COI [conflicts of interest] as a factor. The consequences in this case are dire for the females at risk, for their families, and for the public at large.”

Major study confirms wood dust link to lung cancer

Occupational exposure to wood dust causes an increase of over 40 per cent in the risk of developing lung cancer, a major study has found.

Researchers from Spanish universities and health institutes evaluated eleven studies with a total of 2,368 small cell lung cancer (SCLC) cases and 357,179 controls.

The systematic review and meta-analysis of the scientific literature summarized and analysed the risks of wood dust-related occupations on development of SCLC, taking tobacco use into account.

It found overall, exposure to wood dust “significantly increases” the risk of SCLC, with the studies showing the effect consistently. It determined there was a 41 per cent higher relative rate of this type of lung cancer in workers occupationally exposed to wood dust.

The study concluded: “The results of this study support that exposure to wood dust can increase the risk of developing small cell lung cancer. Determining the impact of occupational exposure on workers is essential to improve their individual protection and prevention.”

It added: “There is a strong case for recommending the implementation of control measures to reduce occupational exposure to wood dust, specifically for highly exposed occupations such as carpenters and sawmills, in order to prevent small cell lung cancer.”

Curiel-García, T., Candal-Pedreira, C., Varela-Lema, L. et al. Wood dust exposure and small cell lung cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol (2023).




Health workers need better radiation protection

Women working in healthcare who are regularly exposed to radiation from x-rays and other imaging procedures need better protection to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.

An editorial in the journal BMJ notes that ionising radiation is a known human carcinogen and breast tissue is highly radiation sensitive – however, current radiation PPE provides inadequate protection for breast tissue as it leaves exposed the area close to the armpit (known as the upper outer quadrant and axilla – the most common site of breast cancer).

Isobel Pilkington and others. Editorial: Protecting female healthworkers from ionising radiation at work, BMJ, 12 April 2023;381:e075406 19 April 2023

Cancer risks in healthcare workers, ETUI webinar, 12 October 2022

In the healthcare sector, 12.7 million workers across the EU are potentially exposed to Hazardous Medicinal Products (HMPs).
These can also pose health risks to nurses, pharmacists, cleaners and other exposed workers.

The Europe-wide trade union research institute ETUI has identified 121 HMPs commonly used in the healthcare sector which can cause cancer or reproductive disorders in professionals exposed to them.

ETUI, which has produced a new report on the topic, is hosting a one-hour webinar on 12 October, with presentations from key experts and a Q&A session.

Britain: FBU cancer decontamination campaign wins top TUC award

The UK firefighters’ union FBU’s DECON cancer prevention campaign has won a top prize at the TUC communications awards.

The union snagged first place for best membership communication project for the DECON campaign, which aims to reduce the impact of fire contaminants on firefighters’ health, by providing firefighters with practical training around PPE, washing and decontamination protocols.

FBU news release.