Preventing cancer caused by work environments

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a new guide on preventing work cancers, a topic that the ETUI feels has not received sufficient attention from EU policies over the past decade. The guide, Preventing work cancers – a workplace health priority, looks at the history and causes of work-induced cancers and provides tools for collective prevention.

According to the ETUI report:

“Cancer kills around 1.2 million people each year in the European Union. Between 65 000 and 100 000 of these deaths are believed to be directly caused by working conditions. Others are the result of environmental exposures which, in many cases, are themselves related to firms’ business activities.”

Startlingly, work-related cancer is by far the main cause of death by working conditions in Europe, and these deaths are predominantly down to controllable factors such as organisations’ technical choices about substances and processes. Working with asbestos, certain chemicals and carcinogens can put people at high risk of contracting work-related cancers, unless the working environment is well-controlled. And, in many cases, it’s not easy to prove categorically that cancer has been caused by work.

So what can employers do to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible? Could dangerous materials be substituted for others, could personal protective equipment (PPE) be provided for workers, or could health surveillance be carried out to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment)? Ideally, employers would keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

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