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Work cancer prevention kit: Part 2

Building a union cancer campaign


Workplace detectives
Anatomy of a union cancer campaign
Do-it-yourself research for reps
Creating a union ‘prevent cancer campaign’
Key recommendations for governments


If you think sticking your head in the text books will give you the all the answers about workplace cancer risks, you’d be wrong. Barely one in every 100 chemicals used at work have been systematically tested.

Finding out if there is a workplace risk requires union vigilance. That means doing your own detective work. Unions have been instrumental in first identifying a number of workplace cancers, from bladder cancer in dye workers to liver cancer in vinyl chloride workers.

Remember, keep it as simple as possible. A quick discussion at a union meeting might provide all the information you need. Just make sure you involve the workforce – they know their jobs, their workmates and the real hazards of the job.

Ask around. Has one part of the workplace got high levels of sickness absence? Are you aware of cases of cancer in workers or ex-workers? Are affected workers all doing similar jobs or using the same substances, for example working in the foundry, cutting stone or handling toxic chemicals? Check with other union reps and colleagues, particularly those who have been at the firm or working in the industry for a long time.

But just knowing there is a problem is not a solution. Making the workplace healthier can take a mixture of training, campaigning and union bargaining.

Both local union reps and officers of the Canadian autoworkers’ union CAW knew something had to done about workplace cancer.

“We were alarmed with the increased number of cancer cases,” explains Sari Sairanen, the union’s national health safety and environment director.

“At our CAW December 1997 Council meeting which is a gathering of about 800 CAW local union leadership from across the country, we heard a very moving speech from one of our most active local union presidents who had also been the full time health and safety representative in his factory, a parts factory in southern Ontario.

“Bud Jimmerfield was a machinist who had worked in the parts plant for about 30 years and exposed to metalworking fluids. In 1996, Bud was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. By December 1997, his wife Diane and their eight children knew that Bud, 49-years-old, was dying of cancer as a result of his exposure to carcinogens in the workplace.”

Addressing that meeting, Bud said: “If I look back at it, if I ask, would I rather have my life back than a dollar, I’d rather have my life back.” Barely a month after addressing the meeting, Bud Jimmerfield’s personal fight against occupational cancer was over. He died on 31 January 1998.

According to Sari: “Bud was the catalyst of our Prevent Cancer Campaign. It was also a tribute to his endless dedication and commitment to raise awareness and to eliminate the known carcinogens our workplaces. In addition, we wanted to start discussions amongst our membership that cancer it is not strictly a lifestyle issue but could be related workplace exposures.”

The CAW Prevent Cancer Campaign was endorsed by the CAW Council meeting, which was followed up with conferences in Ontario, BC, Alberta, Manitoba and Atlantic Canada, all well attended by CAW health & safety, workers’ compensation and environmental activists.

“We have produced a large binder of the IARC known and suspected carcinogens together with ideas on substitution,” added Sari. “We have distributed two videos on workplace carcinogens and on environmental carcinogens among children to all CAW local unions in the country. These videos have been shown at local union meetings, at joint health and safety committee meetings, at school presentations, and on community television networks.

“We have produced a pamphlet called ‘Devil of a poison’ which has been distributed to 80,000 concerned citizens. In addition, we created a leaflet called ‘Second hand smoke — Butt it out’, calling for smoking to be prohibited in all workplaces, except for enclosed, separately ventilated areas.”

The Cancer Prevention Campaign brought together for the first time the union’s health and safety, environmental and compensation activists. Between them they were encouraged to: identify cancer-causing exposures in the workplace; insist the potential cancer cause be removed and substituted with less hazardous substances, or at an absolute minimum insist the process be enclosed; file compensation claims for all workers who may have work related cancers; and ensure community support by making sure the public knows about air emissions and hazardous waste from workplaces which may cause cancer.

The cancer campaign “must have the support and encouragement of the plant committees and the local union leadership,” added Sari.

She adds that the most important aspect of the CAW Prevent Cancer Campaign has been pollution prevention. “If we can eliminate carcinogens from our workplaces and replace them with less hazardous substances, then we can both prevent the incredible incidence of cancer among blue-collar workers and among their family members - since they won’t be bringing carcinogens home on their work clothes - their neighbours and others in our communities and among the animals and plants exposed to these same carcinogens.

“If we don’t export carcinogens from our workplaces through our smokestacks and ventilation exhaust systems, through our sewer systems and into our waterways, and into our landfills or waste treatment facilities, then we will contribute to the prevention of this terrible disease.”

The campaign has had some startling successes, including negotiating wide-ranging bans on cancer-causing substances in the country’s make car producers. “In addition to the contract language that we negotiated with Ford, Chrysler and GM to remove all of the carcinogens, a number of small workplaces have negotiated better language,” she says.

“As an example, Meritior, Local 1941 was able to negotiate lower metalworking fluids exposure limits; 0.02 parts per million (ppm) compared to the Ontario legal limit of 5ppm. We believe that the campaign was successful and that it continues to work.”

Still, a decade after the launch of the campaign, CAW says there is still a big job to do. “In June 2006, we had another Prevent Cancer conference where we reinforced that the work is not over and that we need to do more,” says Sari. “We believe that the problem is huge. Most of the cancers today are diagnosed as lifestyle related. In Canada, we are just starting to have discussions about cancer and the workplace.”

Further information

CAW/TCA prevent cancer campaign
CAW prevent cancer campaign: Devil of a poison [pdf]
CAW cancer and the workplace factsheet


There are lots of quick and easy ways to investigate health problems at work. Here’s some of the more effective techniques.

Risk mapping Draw a basic map of the workplace, marking on the machines, workstations and the substances or processes used. Record on the risk map any health problems reported by workers doing particular jobs. Repeat the exercise periodically and see if any problems become apparent. If cancer causing substances or processes are being used, investigate alternatives and, if this is not possible, safer work methods.

Body mapping Draw two body outlines on a large piece of paper, one representing the front of a person, one the back. Get workers to write on where they feel pain or have had health problems or symptoms. If workers doing similar jobs identify similar problems, then you can start linking workplace factors to their health concerns.

Investigate Review existing sources, like workplace sick leave, accident, compensation and pension records. Don’t forget retired members – many cancers take decades to emerge, so may only occur after a worker has finished working. Newspaper reports may highlight local deaths linked to occupational disease. Where there is a suspicion of a problem, dig deeper.

Surveys Do-it-yourself research can quickly identify problems. This need not be a highly scientific and time-consuming business. A union rep could ask workers on their lunch break if they have concerns about a particular job or substance, or if they had noticed any worrying sick leave trends or causes of ill-health in their workmates.

Get your priorities right If you find out a cancer-causing substance or process is in use, negotiate safer substances, processes or work methods immediately. The best way to ensure you don’t find any cancers in your workplace is to ensure there are no jobs where workers are at risk.


Hazards website

• Cancer resources and news
• Union do-it-yourself research webpages
• Union research tools webpages

UCLA-LOSH website

• Bodymapping factsheets English and Spanish versions
• Spanish language bodymapping factsheet, Haciendo un Mapa del Cuerpo [pdf]
• Worksite Mapping, Mapeo del Lugar de Traba [pdf]
• Risk mapping, Factores de Riesgos en Su Trabajo. [pdf]

Barefoot researching

• The manual Barefoot Research: A Worker's Manual for Organising On Work Security has been developed to help empower workers to increase their level of control over their own work situations, to protect their health and well being, and to improve their level of basic security. more

Union campaigns have been critical in identifying and addressing occupational cancer risks. But fighting carcinogens one at a time is no substitute for a properly designed and operational cancer prevention strategy.

A successful union ‘prevent cancer campaign’ relies on both national union commitment and resources and participation by active and informed local union reps and members. And it requires vigilance, to ensure promised improvements are effectively implemented.

First steps for union reps

1. Identify possible cancer risks in the workplaces. This is a job for the union health and safety representatives, safety committee or a union-organised “cancer prevention” committee.
2. Insist substances or processes presenting a cancer risk are where possible removed and substituted with less hazardous substances or safer work methods. Set priorities for action. Union priorities for dealing with risks are in order: elimination; substitution; control; and if nothing else is possible, personal protective equipment such as masks or protective clothing.
3. Ensure workers with work-related cancers are given the support they need and receive any sickness or compensation payments to which they are entitled.
4. Ensure community support by making sure the public knows about air emissions and hazardous waste from the workplace that may be a cancer concern.
5. Don’t act alone – make sure the prevent cancer campaign has the support of workforce and of the union in the workplace and at local and national levels.

Short-term response

When a work-related cancer risk is suspected in a particular workplace, a short-term investigation by union reps could include:

1. Gathering available evidence, for example death certificates or pension or sickness records, or industrial hygiene, health or media reports. List possible cancer risks in the workplace.
2. Analysis of the information by the local union – is there a suspicion that a workplace or a part of the workplace has more than expected numbers of cancers? Are there exposures in the workplace that could place workers at risk?
3. Where workers have been exposed to a possible cancer risk, it is important they receive regular medical check-ups that could detect cancer in its early stages.
4. Call on the government, safety authorities, the company, universities or supportive workers’ health groups to undertake more comprehensive studies when needed.
5. Ensure possible cancer risks are properly assessed – don’t accept assurances that exposures are at a “safe” level. And remember official exposure limits are not that the same thing as a safe level.
Make sure the workplace is made safer - make recommendations for substitution, using less hazardous substances or processes, and for engineering controls


National union action

1. Consider which workplace and industries pose a possible cancer risk. Remember, the existing workforce may be healthy – the cancers may only appear after they have retired.
2. Review studies or reports to identify existing evidence of possible problem workplace and industries.
3. Where problem workplaces are identified, press the company to report on possible risks and the controls in place, and where necessary to fund and cooperate with research.
4. Organise an awareness campaign, highlighting risks and prevention strategies, and urging workers with possibly work-related cancers to contact the union.

Local union action

1. List substances and processes in the plant that are known or suspected hazards. Locations where cancer agents may be found should be noted and exposed workers should be informed.
2. Make sure the company has informed workers who are exposed to potential cancer risks and other hazards.
3. Seek medical screening programmes for workers who have had exposure to workplace hazards, including possible cancer risks. This should include retired members, who are most likely to develop work-related cancers.
4. Negotiate strict controls, even if minimum government standards are being met. Remember, there is no safe exposure to a cancer agent.
5. Remember the basic control techniques: Substitution; process changes; enclosure; local exhaust ventilation; strict housekeeping; and protective equipment. 6. Make sure real improvements are being implemented – making the workplace safer and providing necessary support and information for workers who have been put at risk.

Further information

CLC prevent cancer campaign
CTC La prévention du cancer au travail

Governments should ratify and implement key International Labour Organisation workplace health and safety conventions, including C139 on occupational cancer, C162 on asbestos, and C170 on chemical safety.
Occupational cancer prevention should be recognised by governments as a major public health priority and should be allocated resources accordingly.
A national occupational cancer and carcinogens awareness campaign should be launched as a matter of urgency.
A tripartite working party, including representatives of governments, unions, employers, health and safety campaign organisations and occupational disease victims’ and advocacy organisations, should review the national occupational cancer strategy.
Wherever possible, IARC Group 1 (definite) and Group 2A (probable) carcinogens should be targeted for “sunsetting”, a phase out within a designated timeframe, to be replaced by safer alternatives.
Toxics Use Reduction legislation should be introduced to encourage the use of the safest suitable substances and processes. The precautionary principle should be applied to substances suspected of causing cancer in humans.
A national system of occupational health records should be developed to ensure adequate recording of workplace exposures and other occupational cancer risk factors. Employers must have a duty to inform any workers of their exposures to known or suspected workplace cancer risks and carcinogens.
A National Exposure Database should be created.
National health and safety authorities should provide resources for training of union safety reps in “lay epidemiology”, techniques for the early recognition of work-related diseases, including cancer.