Regulator and CRUK refuse to see the light on night work cancer risks

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) position statement on night work cancer risks has been dismissed as ‘nonsense’ by leading occupational cancer experts.

Since a 2016 study backed by the UK health and safety regulator HSE and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) concluded the classification of night work as a cause of breast cancer was ‘no longer justified’, both organisations have stuck by this conclusion.

However, an international expert working group convened in 2019 by the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed not only the previous ‘probable’ breast cancer rating for night work, it added prostate, colon and rectal cancers to the work-related associations.

Questioned by Hazards magazine on IARC’s new findings, published in a June 2020 IARC monograph, an HSE spokesperson said: “HSE’s position on this matter remains unchanged.” HSE added: “The IARC review highlighted the challenges in measuring the potential effects of night shift work whilst taking into account other cancer risk factors when performing research studies, and that large-scale studies may not necessarily be able to provide the appropriate evidence to clarify if there is a causal link between night shift work and cancer.”

However, Eva Schernhammer, a Harvard Medical School expert who was on the IARC working group, described the HSE responses as “pretty stunning” and “difficult for me to reconcile.”

She added that HSE’s comments on the research challenges were “such nonsense! It was the study that they funded, that should not have been conducted at the first place given the limited information it allowed to draw – underpowered, too short follow-up, women long out of night work given their age. But clearly there are other large-scale studies which very much were able to 1) take into account other cancer risk factors; and 2) were very much able to provide the appropriate evidence.”

CRUK also stood by the earlier research findings.  CRUK’s Amy Hirst told Hazards the IARC review involving top cancer scientists from round the world was “interesting,” but added “there haven’t been any major changes to what we know since IARC’s last review.”

Danish Cancer Society researcher Johnni Hansen, who was also on the IARC expert group, described Hirst’s comments as “arrogant and conservative, scientifically not correct, and in contradiction of international expert evaluations,” including both IARC reviews.

In addition to the IARC monograph, he pointed to a 2018 report from the US government’s Office of the Report on Carcinogens (ROC/NTP) which concluded different night work circumstances were either ‘known’ or could be ‘reasonably anticipated’ to cause cancer in humans.

Schernhammer said the CRUK comments were in “direct contravention” of the facts.

Night work has risen to record levels in the UK. Around 3.25 million people – more than 1 in 9 workers – work in Britain’s night-time economy.  ‘In the dark’, the new Hazards magazine report on the controversy, concluded: “As HSE sits on the sidelines, the known at-risk group of night workers it is ignoring has just increased by at least 2 million and could equate to several hundred extra work-related cancers each year.”


Trade secrets law protects Samsung, not Korean workers

Global electronics giant Samsung, which in 2018 made a public apology for the toxic workplace exposures that led to a spate of occupational cancers known to have killed over 100 workers in Korea, can keep its toxic secrets, a court has ruled.

On 20 February 2020, the Seoul administrative court ruled in favour of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, allowing it to withhold certain information regarding the chemicals used in its microchip production. By law, the company is required to provide the government with biannual reports on the exposure levels of about 190 hazardous chemicals. In 2018, a court ordered the government to release in full this information relating to Samsung’s LCD factories, despite the company’s fierce opposition.

Samsung took the case to the administrative court, claiming its rivals could use any such full disclosure to “deduce” trade secrets related to chip production. Campaign group SHARPS, which advocates for Samsung’s occupational disease victims, had pressed for the full disclosure because this information can be used as evidence for workers’ compensation petitions.

The advocacy group, which has appealed the latest court decision, commented: “The latest ruling is in tune with a revised trade secret law that took effect on 21 February. The amendment exempts companies from the disclosure of information on hazardous materials should they prove it as core national technology. It does not spell out what constitutes ‘a core national technology,’ but empowers them to lodge criminal complaints and seek punitive damages for any such disclosure.”

SHARPS, supported by 14 lawmakers from a branch of Overland Park family law firms, has pledged to reverse the trade secrets amendment. At a 24 February press conference, a statement from the 14 lawmakers noted: “Unknown to us, controversial clauses were deeply hidden in the amendment. We repent our negligence in the legislation and take responsibility.”

SHARPS said it “will also petition the Constitutional Court to determine the constitutionality of the amendment.”


Occupational cancer webinar, 28 February 2020

The European Cancer League (ECL), the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) are to run a special webinar on occupational health and the European Code Against Cancer on 28 February, 12:00-1:00pm UK time, 1:00-2:00pm CET.

They say with more than 100,000 deaths per year, cancer is the number one work-related cause of death in the European Union. Over half (53 per cent) of all work-related deaths are caused by occupational cancer. Ensuring adequate prevention strategies and protection measures for workers requires an EU-wide response, yet there are large differences in the level of protection of workers across Europe.

Presenters are Tony Musu of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), who will give an introduction to occupational cancers and the role of civil society in reducing work-related exposure risks, and William Tailler from the European Commission, who will provide an overview of the legislative and regulatory actions the Commission is taking to prevent exposure.

Occupational cancer webinar, 12:00-1:00pm UK time, 1:00-2:00pm CET, 28 February 2020. Register now.


Diesel ‘fog’ footage spurs cancer concern at UK rail depot

Toxic diesel fumes emitted by trains at a UK rail depot could be linked to a number of staff members developing cancer in recent years, the union Unite has warned. The transport union said three staff members at the Neville Hill rail depot in Leeds have developed cancers of the throat, with a fourth being diagnosed with throat and lung cancer.

A further four staff members also developed cancers of the lung, mouth, bowel and kidney respectively. Two of the eight staff members affected have died from the disease. All of the cancers have been diagnosed within a six-year period, with four staff members being diagnosed within the last two years. Nearly of all of the staff have worked at the depot for more than a decade and four of the staff are making legal claims.

Unite said the troubling instances of cancer at the site were revealed as a ‘shocking’ video filmed in late December 2019 emerged of a train spewing a ‘toxic fog’ of diesel emissions into the depot – an occurrence workers at Neville Hill report happens regularly.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel engine exhaust emissions as a class one carcinogenic agent in 2012, putting the fumes in the same cancer-causing category as asbestos and tobacco. IARC said diesel emissions can cause lung cancer and said there was also a ‘positive association’ with bladder cancer.

Unite said it is raising its concerns with Network Rail, which owns the depot and East Midlands Rail, which runs and employs staff at the depot, and is calling on them to take ‘decisive action’ to stop workers being exposed to diesel emissions. Unite regional officer Kevin Hepworth said: “The video captures just how this cancer-causing toxic fog fills the depot that staff are expected to work in. Unite believes that the carcinogenic diesel emissions that our members at Neville Hill have been surrounded by day-in day-out, often for years at a time, could be linked to cancer rates at the depot.”

Unite national officer for health and safety Rob Miguel said: “Sadly the problem with diesel emissions at Neville Hill is just the tip of the iceberg. Exposure to diesel emissions is common across all sectors in which staff work in enclosed environments where engines are running. Inadequate controls such as archaic outdated ventilation systems, mean the health of countless workers is being put at serious risk.”

Unite runs a diesel exhaust emissions register, where members can log their exposures. The union says the register can assist its prevention efforts and provide evidence to support compensation claims where workers go on to develop diesel exhaust fume related ill-health.

Diesel exhaust fumes contain a mix of potent poisons linked to lung and bladder cancer, potentially fatal heart problems including heart attack and stroke, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema (the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases or COPD) and other chronic harm including cognitive’ impairment, or brain damage.


Austrian glyphosate ban set to take effect in January

The Austrian government’s plan to ban sales and use of the cancer-linked herbicide glyphosate from 1 January 2020 looks set to go ahead. Neither the European Commission nor EU member states have challenged formally the ban on all uses of glyphosate adopted by Austria’s parliament in July this year, paving the way for it to come into effect.

In Austria, the move is supported by a cross-party coalition in parliament, civil society, environmentalists, small farmer organisations and trade unions. Should be ban now go ahead, Austria would become the first EU country to ban the world’s most widely used herbicide, best known as Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’.

However, global farm and food union federation IUF, which has called for a total ban on glyphosate worldwide, has concerns the move could still be frustrated. “While glyphosate maker Bayer/Monsanto had immediately indicated its intention to seek to overturn the ban, and the European Commission questioned its compatibility with the rules of the single market, neither the Commission nor any of the Member States registered their formal opposition during the mandatory ‘standstill period’, which expired at the end of November,” IUF noted.

“The caretaker government’s agricultural ministry and the powerful farm lobby linked to the conservative Austrian People’s Party, however, have suggested that there may still be procedural grounds for objecting to the law; opponents of the ban fear it could catalyse similar action in other EU countries.”

IUF has been critical of the EU’s inaction on glyphosate risks. In February is said while the campaign to stop glyphosate reauthorisation in the European Union failed, “it succeeded brilliantly in exposing the agrochemical industry’s grip on the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public health and the environment.”

A briefing from the union body concluded: “Now is the time to step up organising on the broadest possible basis at national, European and international level for an immediate ban on the most toxic agrochemicals, targeted reductions in pesticide use and comprehensive support for a transition to socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture”.


Unions welcome extension to Europe’s roadmap on carcinogens

Unions have joined safety organisations and regulators across Europe in signing up to an extension of the EU Roadmap on Carcinogens. Europe-wide trade union organisation ETUC said the objective of this voluntary action scheme is to raise awareness amongst workers and employers about the risks of exposure to carcinogens.

The initiative was first launched in May 2016 under the Dutch EU Presidency, and has been extended each time the presidency switched to another nation.

Per Hilmersson, the ETUC deputy general secretary responsible for health and safety at work who signed the new covenant at a conference held by the Finnish EU Presidency, said: “The EU Roadmap on Carcinogens shows the willingness of Member States, the European Commission, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, and the social partners to work together to prevent work-related cancers.”

ETUC said the activities developed by the many partners of the Roadmap aim to provide employers with information on evaluation and risk management methods, to raise the awareness of companies regarding the risks of exposure to carcinogens, and to deepen the exchange of good practices which already exist in this field.

It said with more than 100,000 deaths each year in the EU, occupational cancers are the greatest cause of deaths due to bad working conditions.


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.


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.

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).