Cancer is by far the most common cause for work-related deaths: according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), over half (52%) of all work-related deaths in the EU are caused by work-related cancer. However, this phenomenon is given far too little attention in the public debate. In particular, the issue of women who have been affected by work-related cancers has so far received too little attention. In order to draw awerness to the urgent need for action, the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) dedicated a two-day conference in December to cover this important matter.
Asbestos worker and nurse
Moving and touching were the testimonals given by affected workers at the Conference: Josette Roudaire, former worker at Amisol, an asbestos factory in France, talked about the lack of problem awareness in the 1970s, her work with asbestos without any protective clothing or respiratory protection, inconceivable large numbers of cancers and deaths of her work colleagues and the fight of workers for compensation after the factory had been closed.
Georgina Angusto, a former nurse presented a more recent example: due to her work on the urology ward she administered antineoplastic drugs to cancer patients. Later, she herself and other colleagues developed bladder cancer. The patients got detailed instructions as to what to do after their treatment; however, the employer did not provide hospital staff, who were working with these medications on a daily basis, with adequate protection.
Elke Schneider, EU-OSHA, concluded that it had been wrongly assumed for a long time that work-related cancers would predominantly affect men (industry sectors). This resulted in the fact that for example research programmes focussed less on women. One had to make sure that future studies would pay equal attention to the effects on women. Part-time workers too had to be considered by research. It was vital to focus also on those sectors, which predominantly employed women.
Apart from the health sector, the cleaning industry is also an area, where the majority of workers are women. Physical working conditions, biological threats, chemicals and psychosocial risk factors all pose dangers for the health of workers. The research work, which was presented by Laura Van den Borrew, found that apart from other illnesses, the number of cleaning staff dying from lung cancer was significantly higher. However, here too Van den Borrew pointed out that relevant data was in urgent need of improvement.
Attention had also to be paid to the occurrence of different cancers in women and men. Monique Rabussier, Fédération générale des transports-environnement, talked about breast cancer and discrimination at work. An aspect, which has to be considered is that this disease – compared to prostate cancer in men – occurs on average at a much younger age and therefore significantly more often during working years.
Apart from ongoing regulatory efforts at EU level, which determine binding limits for carcinogenic working materials, the debate also covered national best-practice examples for regulation. Ian Lindsley, European Biosafety Network, presented a regional law from Madrid for the protection of workers in the health sector as an example; the law covers in particular also cytotoxic substances, which are used to treat cancer patients.
Documents and Video ETUI Conference “Women, Work and Cancer”