What gorilla? HAzards cover artwork issue 99
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Hazards magazine, issue 99
July-September 2007

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Hazards work cancer prevention kit

Discounting cancers
HSE complacency
- Work cancers are killing you
Victims miss out
- What’s not counted doesn’t count


What gorilla?

Photo: Eve Barker





Official occupational cancer complacency revealed

Discounting cancers

In 2005, Hazards accused the Health and Safety Executive of “burying the evidence” of a UK occupational cancer epidemic (Hazards 92). Now new reports have confirmed HSE’s estimates fall way short. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says the watchdog should act now before another generation pays with their lives.


WHAT GORILLA? Painter Pete Farrell reminds HSE it is ignoring obvious cancer risks to groups including painters and firefighters. Demonstrators outside HSE’s June seminar said HSE is downplaying occupational cancer.


Research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and presented to an HSE-organised seminar in June 2007 concluded six cancers alone – mesothelioma, lung, bladder, nose and naval cavities, non-melanoma skin and leukaemia - are responsible for 7,380 deaths a year, 23 per cent higher than the watchdog’s current 6,000 deaths estimate for all occupational cancers.

Speaking ahead of the seminar, Steve Coldrick, head of HSE’s disease reduction programme, said: “We want to engage with our key stakeholders and industry experts to inform our decisions on future priorities and work streams. The risk of exposure to chemical carcinogens cannot be reduced by the efforts of one organisation or party. We need to rally support from all those with influence in our bid to make workplaces healthier.” The job facing this partnership is looking increasingly daunting. The author of the new estimates, Dr Lesley Rushton of Imperial College London, declined to be interviewed by Hazards. She did however tell the HSE seminar the six cancers total was itself low.

“The researcher stressed that this was likely to be an underestimation as much of the employment data was out of date or unavailable,” said TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, who attended the seminar. “Further work is still to be undertaken on other cancers, and it is expected that this research will lead to the HSE revising their cancer estimates upwards.” He pointed to a draft Stirling University report, produced for the Cancer Prevention Coalition - an alliance of academics, trades unions and environmental and occupational cancer campaigners - and to be published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health in October.

This put the number of work-related cancer deaths at more than 12,000 a year, with a financial cost of over £29bn - but warning the true toll could be much higher. Even using HSE’s estimate of 6,000 deaths, occupational cancer carries a price tag of £15bn. Preventing just 100 occupational cancers a year would more than offset the entire HSE annual budget.

HSE complacency

Report co-author Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University – the report was prepared in conjunction with Hazards - was scathing in his criticism of strategy documents presented by HSE to the meeting. “HSE's recommendations for action range from complacent to non-existent,” he said. “Its evaluations on cancer causing substances including benzene, cadmium, diesel exhaust and wood dust are error-ridden, inadequate and outdated, whole categories of workers known to be at high risk are ignored, and HSE cannot quantify and continues to neglect the risk to women.”

Breast cancer, the major occupational and environmental cancer risk for women, “is entirely off HSE's radar,” Professor Watterson said. “The net result of this shocking complacency will be needless exposures and avoidable deaths.” Professor Watterson says the HSE approach is blighted by poor research, unsustainable assumptions and a “shocking” ignorance of real-life conditions in many workplaces. “HSE has for decades used low estimates of risks to tell itself occupational cancer is no big deal. It backs this up with assumptions about occupational cancers today being the product of exposures two decades ago, when in fact many - like chrome, arsenic, aromatic amine, benzene, asbestos, nickel and wood dust cancers - can have latency periods of way under 10 years, and tops it off with mistaken assumptions about today’s workplaces being relatively safe.”

He points to the risk from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. HSE has assumed the numbers exposed to relatively high levels were tiny.

For stonemasonry, for example, both HSE and the industry thought no workers exposed to levels above 0.1mg/m³. But surveys conducted by HSE last year suggest 3,150 workers could be exposed above this level, and 1,425 were potentially exposed to 0.3mg/ m³ or more. In construction, it estimated 30 per cent of workers in “significant risk activities” could be receiving regular exposures in excess of 0.1mg/m³.

Whole industries facing an increased work cancer rate – for example, painters and firefighters – were missing entirely from HSE’s cancer workplan.

Work cancers are killing you

Occupational cancers rarely attract public attention – but that doesn’t mean they are not out there, and that workers are being exposed in a wide range of jobs.

A 43-year-old man who inhaled dangerous chemicals whilst working in the rubber industry died from a form of cancer only usually seen in pensioners, a May 2007 inquest heard. Timothy Kirkby had cancer in a kidney and in his bladder and urethra. Derby Coroner's Court heard how Mr Kirkby had spent 26 years working in the rubber industry. Coroner Peter Ashworth recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease. Bladder cancer is an official “prescribed” industrial disease in workers in the rubber and print trades.
Car union Unite TGWU has offered to assist people affected by an apparent cluster of oesophageal cancer cases at Ford’s Southampton plant. An investigation by local paper the Daily Echo revealed 21 cases of oesophageal cancer among workers at the Swaythling factory - more than three times the number of cases investigated in an independent study commissioned by Ford. The study - supported by the Health and Safety Executive – was based on just six cases and concluded the cancer cluster was unrelated to the workplace.
Australian journalists' union MEAA wants broadcaster ABC to extend its cancer cluster investigation to other Brisbane sites after another breast cancer diagnosis. Former employee Angela Eckersley, 40, has become the 14th case of breast cancer at the ABC's former studios at Toowong. ABC abandoned the Toowong site late in 2006; an expert panel has since found highly elevated breast cancer rates in female employees (Hazards 98). MEAA is calling for a register of past and present employees for health monitoring purposes. Queensland MEAA secretary Dave Waters said. “Yes, we have seen 15 cases of breast cancer since 1994 but all staff are concerned about cancer and that extends to men.”
A Minnesota Health Department delay in releasing information about deadly cancers in taconite iron ore miners has led to a public enquiry. Bob Bratulich, director of District 11 of the United Steelworkers union, said: “It is unconscionable, unethical, and probably criminal for a public agency to withhold information about a potential health risk to workers,” he said. The scandal erupted after it was revealed state officials waited a year before releasing research showing dozens of taconite miners had developed the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. A state researcher discovered the additional cancer cases in March 2006, but the findings were not released until March 2007.
The province of Ontario in Canada is looking to make it easier for firefighters suffering work-related cancers and other disorders to receive compensation. An amendment to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act would identify eight types of cancer - brain, bladder, kidney, colorectal, ureter and oesophageal cancers and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukaemia - as presumed to be work-related. Heart attacks would also be presumed to be work-related if they occur within 24 hours of a fire. The provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Nova Scotia already compensate firefighter deaths from cancers.
The world’s third largest animal feed supplement producer has been found liable for occupational kidney cancers. A social security tribunal ruled in April that Adisseo had been grossly negligent and ordered the company to pay compensation of 50,000 to 60,000 euros (£34,000-£41,000) to kidney cancer victims. All the men had been employed in the plant’s vitamin A production shop, which had used the mutagen and carcinogen Chloracetal C5 since 1982. The tribunal found that “despite knowing that Chloracetal C5 was a mutagen in 1990, Adisseo France failed to show that it had really improved protection for its employees”.

More cancer news from Hazards

Victims miss out

Victims, meanwhile, continue to lose out – missed by prevention efforts and missed by the compensation system. Even HSE’s current estimate says 310 males die each year from occupational bladder cancer, whereas each year only about 20 workers receive DWP industrial injuries benefit for the condition. At least 95 per cent of all asbestos related lung cancers go uncompensated under this scheme.

The report was prepared for the Cancer Prevention Coalition, an alliance of academics, trades unions and environmental and occupational cancer campaigners. It warned that for certain workers, the cancer risk is exceptionally high, concluding: “HSE fails to recognise the social inequality in occupational cancer risk, which is concentrated in skilled and unskilled manual workers and lower employment grades, or the greater likelihood these groups will experience multiple exposures to carcinogens at work and in the wider environment.”

Hilda Palmer of the Hazards Campaign, a member of the coalition, said: “Occupational cancer is not a disease of the boardroom – almost all the risk is borne by just one-fifth of the workforce. They are not told they are at risk, they are not provided health surveillance and they don’t get the early diagnosis that can be the difference between living and dying. They are not dying of ignorance; they are dying of neglect.”

The Stirling report calls for “sunsetting” to phase out where possible many common workplace carcinogens, and a “Toxics Use Reduction” policy to help wean companies on to safer alternative substances and processes. These approaches have worked well elsewhere, and have been supported by both workplace and environmental health advocates and industry.

What’s not counted doesn’t count

A July 2007 report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found coal health schemes set up in 1998 to compensate miners suffering Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease (COAD) and vibration white finger (VWF) have so far paid out £3.6 billion to 575,000 claimants, with 430,000 COAD and 145,000 VWF claims settled by 31 March 2007. Administration costs have totalled £1.9 billion.

When all of the 760,000 claims are settled, the department expects to have spent £2.3 billion in administration costs, including £1.3 billion in legal fees, and to have paid £4.1 billion in compensation.

But the NAO report revealed more than the harm caused to miners by hazardous exposures at work. It revealed Great Britain’s official occupational disease estimates to be a massive under-estimate.

The government’s original, wildly inaccurate, forecast was that there would be a total of 218,000 vibration white finger (VWF) and chronic obstructive airways (COAD) disease claims under the scheme, launched in 1998, but the final claims total for the decade long scheme was over three times higher, at 760,000.

This failure to recognise the extent of work-related ill-health seems to carry over to the official workplace safety agency. The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) estimates of occupational ill-health in Great Britain, published on 19 July, say in 2005/06 there were only 156,000 people in Great Britain with “breathing or lung problems” related to their current or past work.

However, the coal miners’ health scheme alone has identified in the last decade almost three times as many workers from just one occupation, coal mining, suffering from COAD, just one of the many occupational lung conditions. Although some of the COAD claimants have now died, latest government figures indicate 242,000 are still alive, and like affected workers in many other occupations, appear to be largely missing from HSE estimates.

Vibration white finger does not even register in the HSE report, despite affecting over 140,000 coal miners alone. These VWF cases have been confirmed in coal health scheme medical evaluations, with the government in June indicating over 85 per cent of the affected workers are still alive. Together the COAD and VWF claimants amount to hundreds of thousands of occupational disease cases missed in just one occupation. Both obstructive lung disease and VWF are common in other industrial jobs.

Other conditions, like occupational cancer, are also overlooked in the report, which puts the total number of people suffering work-related ill-health in the 12 months prior to the survey at under 2 million. Policy and government funding priorities are influenced by these discredited estimates.



Burying the evidence: How the UK is prolonging the occupational cancer epidemic, Stirling University/Hazards magazine, 25 June 2007.

Coal Health Compensation Schemes: Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 608 2006-2007. Executive summaryNAO website

Self-reported Work-related Illness and workplace injuries in 2005/06: Results from the Labour Force Survey, HSE, 2007 [pdf]

HSE statistics webpages. .


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