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Work cancer prevention kit: Part 2
Building a union cancer campaign
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
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.
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
When a work-related cancer risk is suspected in a particular workplace, a short-term investigation by union reps could include:
National union action
Local union action
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