In April 2015, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,585 people in the country were killed at work in 2013. Experts say, however, that the death toll from occupational disease in America may be 10 or more times higher. Workers in developing nations almost certainly have it worse.
For this reason, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the organisation representing 176 million workers belonging to 328 national union affiliates, is campaigning for the removal of exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace, with a special focus on cancer.
“Chemicals we would have imagined by now would be globally banned keep popping up,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow told reporters from the US Center for Public Integrity. “We see emerging fears around some of the new technological issues such as nanotechnology… it’s extraordinary, really. There’s a lot of fear amongst workers.”
Anabella Rosemberg, ITUC’s policy adviser on occupational health, safety and environment and the author of a new guide to help workers ‘stop deadly exposures’, added: “The reality is, workers have very little capacity today to track exposures in their careers. When workers change sectors or companies very often, we don’t have health systems that allow them to know what substances they’ve been exposed to.” The burden is on the worker to prove harm, Rosemberg said. “This needs to change.”
ITUC ‘stop deadly exposures’ guides.
The food system must be ‘transformed’ to keep deadly pesticides out of the workplace and the food chain, the global farm and food union federation IUF has said.
The union body was speaking out in the wake of a 20 March 2015 online report in the journal Lancet Oncology, which revealed the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) new classification of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely-used herbicide – as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” IARC, a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), cites evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers’ occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to IUF: “With this report, the WHO explicitly recognises the importance of independent research on the impact of pesticides on human health and the food chain – a field long dominated by pesticide manufacturers. And it gives advocates of food rights and a safer, saner food system an important opportunity to push for action.”
Monsanto, which sold US$5bn worth of glyphosate last year, immediately attacked the credibility of the report. According to IUF: “Will the WHO withstand the pressure of the pesticide lobby? Much depends on the public response, which also means defeating moves to lower regulatory standards through agreements like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).”
The global union concludes: “The sudden spotlight on glyphosate, and growing awareness of the threat to food safety contained in TTIP and similar trade and investment agreements, can help catalyse a broader movement to fundamentally transform the food system. Unions should be at the head of the movement.”
Labour shadow ministers Stephen Timms and Kate Green have said a future Labour government will take action to improve enforcement of safety standards, support union safety reps and will “prioritise occupational health and the prevention of occupational illnesses.”
In a Labourlist posting, they say a Labour government “will commission a proactive research programme to provide evidence for policy, including on occupational carcinogens. We will prioritise occupational health and the prevention of occupational illnesses, and establish a strategy for removing over time asbestos from the built environment.”
Occupational cancers kill at a rate of more than once a minute worldwide, according to a comprehensive review of the evidence by the ITUC.
The global union body, speaking out ahead of the 28 April International Workers’ Memorial Day, says this preventable waste of life must end and has a stern warning for rogue employers: “If you expose us, we’ll expose you.”
Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said: “Even conservative estimates put the annual occupational cancer toll at 660,000 deaths a year. A poisonous cocktail of toxic marketing and regulatory failure has already condemned another generation to an early grave. As long as there’s money to be made, industry will retain its fatal attachment to some of the most potent killers in history.”
This year on 28 April, the international campaign day when unions pledge to “remember the dead, and fight for the living”, the harm caused by workplace toxins is being put under the spotlight. A new ITUC guide, ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’, sets out how to remove toxic exposures from the workplace. At the centre of the union strategy is active, union-supported workforce participation, in finding problems and implementing solutions.
According to Burrow: “Some of the world’s most profitable companies are not just defending their toxic products, they are defending weak exposure standards that mean they profit and you pay. It is not ethical, it is not healthy and it is not what we bargained for. We make this pledge: if they expose us, we will expose them.”
- Statistics are included in a new ITUC-supported workplace cancer website, www.cancerhazards.org, which provides union representatives and others with the latest news on occupational cancer, including emerging scientific evidence and union initiatives to combat occupational causes of cancer.
2. Online campaign resources are available: ITUC occupational health and safety and 28 April activities. ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’.
On April 28, European Trade unions will commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day – remembering the 150,000 people who have died in the EU from occupational cancers since the European Commission suspended work on legislation protecting workers from chemicals that cause cancer. Every year 100,000 people in the EU die from occupational cancers. In October 2013 the European Commission stopped developing exposure limits for chemicals that cause cancer because it is reviewing ‘red tape’ – with the result that only 3 cancer-causing chemicals have European exposure limits!
Now the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is demanding:
- Legally enforceable exposure limits for the for a priority list of the 50 most toxic chemicals for causing cancer, and for male and female fertility.
- Progress on the revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens at work to expand the number of chemicals with binding exposure limits
“Measures to protect workers from cancer and fertility difficulties, are being treated as ‘red tape’ and a so-called ‘unnecessary burden’ on industry” said Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “It is shameful.”
“I am all in favour of ‘better regulation’ but this is treating human life like another line in the balance sheet, like the cost of raw materials or energy. The ETUC is calling on the European Commission agree legally binding exposure limits for 50 of the most harmful chemicals.” She added: “The Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans recently said that better regulation does not mean deregulation and lowering standards* so I hope he is willing to take action to protect workers from cancer.”
The owners of a Taiwan-based electronics firm have been ordered to pay millions in compensation to workers who developed liver, lung and other cancers after working on its production lines. On 17 April, a Taiwan district court ordered the parent firms of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to pay US$18 million in damages to the former workers and their families, who the court heard were the victims of worst work-related health scandal in the country’s history. More than 200 former workers at an RCA plant in Taoyuan have died of liver and lung cancers since the 1990s.
The plant in the northern county of Taoyuan (now Taoyuan City) shut down in 1992, a few years after RCA’s takeover by General Electric, an American multinational conglomerate, and its subsequent sale to the French owned Thomson Consumer Electronics. The court ruled that RCA and four related companies’ usage of chemicals including the solvents trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethene and dichloromethane, had a direct correlation to many of the former employees’ cancer diagnoses.
“The workers have a partial victory today but this is belated justice,” said Joseph Lin, the lead lawyer with the plaintiffs’ legal team. “We hope this case will set up a precedent against irresponsible international and Taiwanese corporations and help protect workers.” RCA set up the factory in 1970. It was later acquired by US firm General Electronics (GE) and then France’s Thomson Consumer Electronics (Bermuda) Ltd (TCEB) before closing in 1992. TCEB was also held liable for compensation. Around 80 former RCA workers and their families gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Taipei after the ruling, displaying a white banner reading ‘poisoned workers, immediate compensation’.
Imagine a killer that strikes more than once every minute. Most of these deaths could be stopped with minimal effort, but preventive measures are being blocked. Well, warns ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, that killer is occupational cancer and a mixture of toxic marketing and regulatory failure has already condemned another generation to an early grave.
Occupational cancer isn’t a mystery disease. There’s decades of evidence about the causes, and enough early warnings to avoid introducing a new generation of killers. But instead of prevention, we are facing a toxic cocktail of denial and deceit that means more people than at any time in history will develop tumours caused by their job. The reason is as straightforward as it is shocking. As long as there’s money to be made, industry will retain its fatal attachment to some of the most potent killers in history.
A new ITUC guide, ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’, sets out why we want to remove toxic exposures from the workplace and how. At the centre of the union strategy is active, union-supported workforce participation, in finding problems and implementing solutions. And a ITUC-supported workplace cancer website, www.cancerhazards.org, now provides union representatives with the latest news on occupational cancer, including emerging scientific evidence and union initiatives to combat this workplace scourge.
Imaginez un assassin qui tue toutes les minutes. La plupart de ces morts pourraient être évitées avec un minimum d’efforts, pourtant certains bloquent les mesures de prévention. Cet assassin, dénonce la secrétaire générale de la CSI, Sharan Burrow, est le cancer professionnel, et une commercialisation toxique associée à un échec réglementaire a déjà condamné une nouvelle génération à une mort prématurée.
Le cancer professionnel n’a rien d’une maladie mystérieuse. Nous disposons de décennies de preuves relatives aux causes et suffisamment d’alertes précoces pour éviter l’introduction d’une nouvelle série de tueurs. Mais, plutôt que de prévenir, on nous sert un cocktail toxique de dénis et de mensonges, et c’est ainsi que, tôt ou tard, davantage de personnes développeront des tumeurs à cause de leur travail. La raison est aussi simple qu’elle est choquante. Tant qu’il y aura de l’argent à faire, l’industrie continuera d’être mortellement attachée à certains des tueurs les plus puissants de tous les temps.
Dans un nouveau manuel, Travail toxique – Stop aux expositions mortelles aujourd’hui !, la CSI explique les raisons pour lesquelles nous voulons supprimer les expositions toxiques des lieux de travail et de quelles façons. Les organisations syndicales comptent sur une participation active et soutenue par les syndicats des travailleuses et des travailleurs pour identifier les problèmes et mettre en place des solutions. La Confédération soutient aussi un nouveau site web sur le cancer professionnel, www.cancerhazards.org, qui fournit désormais aux représentants syndicaux les dernières informations relatives au cancer professionnel, dont de nouvelles preuves scientifiques et les dernières initiatives syndicales pour combattre ce fléau sur les lieux de travail.
Es un asesino que mata varias veces por minuto. Aunque la mayoría de esas muertes podrían evitarse con un esfuerzo mínimo, la adopción de medidas preventivas es sistemáticamente bloqueada. Ese asesino, afirma la Secretaria General de la CSI, Sharan Burrow, es el cáncer profesional y la combinación de publicidad tóxica y fallos reglamentarios, que ya han condenado a otra generación a una muerte prematura.
El cáncer profesional no es una enfermedad misteriosa. Existe un acervo de información, recabada durante varios decenios, sobre sus causas, y ha habido suficientes alertas tempranas para evitar la aparición de una nueva generación de asesinos. Sin embargo, observamos que no solo no se han adoptado las medidas de prevención necesarias, sino que habrá un número histórico de personas que desarrollarán tumores por su actividad profesional debido al muro de negación y engaño al que nos enfrentamos. La razón es tan simple como apabullante. Mientras pueda seguir obteniendo beneficios, la industria seguirá defendiendo la fabricación de uno de los productos más mortales de la historia.
Un nuevo manual de la CSI, ‘Trabajo tóxico: no más exposición mortal” explica los motivos por los que queremos suprimir toda forma de exposición a sustancias mortales en el lugar del trabajo y la manera de hacerlo. La estrategia sindical se centra en una participación activa de los trabajadores, impulsada por los sindicatos, con miras a encontrar soluciones y a ponerlas en práctica. Un nuevo sitio web sobre el cáncer en el lugar de trabajo, apoyado por la CSI, www.cancerhazards.org, ofrece a los representantes sindicales las noticias más recientes sobre el cáncer profesional, incluidas las pruebas científicas más recientes y las iniciativas sindicales para luchar contra ese flagelo en el lugar de trabajo. Los sindicatos del mundo entero están realizando sus propias campañas y produciendo sus propias adiciones a la carpeta de materiales sobre la prevención.
Use of asbestos is increasing in Asia and the continent could face an asbestos disease ‘tsunami’ as a result, researchers have warned. Writing in the journal Respirology, experts from Australia, Indonesia and the UK note: “Although some countries such as Japan, Korea and Singapore have curtailed the use of this mineral, there are numerous countries in Asia that continue to mine, import and use this fibre, particularly China, which is one of the largest consumers in the world.” The paper adds: “Numerous factors ranging from political and economic to the lack of understanding of asbestos and the management of asbestos-related lung disease are keys to this observed trend. Awareness of these factors combined with early intervention may prevent the predicted Asian ‘tsunami’ of asbestos diseases.”
The paper spells out the measures necessary to achieve this. “Asbestos is widely used in Asia with little occupational protection and thus will produce many thousands of cases of asbestos related disease in the next decades. Reducing the risks of such diseases will require reduction in the use of asbestos, careful surveillance for asbestos related diseases and improved levels of training in the recognition and diagnosis of these disease, and cooperation among government and non-government groups in the prevention of these diseases.”
A related editorial notes: “How can we solve this asbestos time bomb that Asia is facing? Should we continue with the mining and export of asbestos? Should we go for short-term profit and accept the occupational hazards?” It concludes: “Short-sightedness is not acceptable anymore. Asbestos is a major health threat; it has already ruined too many lives. Therefore, we must help the developing world by finding suitable alternatives for asbestos as soon as possible or we will face an immense loss of quality of life and working potential in these countries.”
Su Lyn Leong, Rizka Zainudin, Laurie Kazan-Allen and Bruce W Robinson. Asbestos in Asia, Respirology, early view, published online ahead of print, 29 March 2015.
Paul Baas and Sjaak Burgers. ASIA: Asbestos stop in Asia, Editorial, Respirology, early view, published online ahead of print, 31 March 2015.