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Workers memorial day 2019: Taking control – removing dangerous substances from the workplace

Global union confederation ITUC announced the theme for International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2019 as ‘taking control – removing dangerous substances from the workplace’. The union-led campaign emphasises a ‘Zero Cancer’ approach, urging worker safety representatives to seek to eliminate or minimise exposure to carcinogens in the workplace.

The theme is apposite. Too many workers around the world die, are made ill, or otherwise harmed by dangerous substances at work. In some cases, the substances can come back from the workplace to the home to harm other people, such as the partner who washes the work clothes. The worker bears the greatest burden from this harm, but the cost impacts upon society and businesses too. To take one specific type of dangerous substance, each year it in the EU it is estimated that 120 000 people developed cancer because of exposure to carcinogens at work, resulting in almost 80 000 deaths.

A dangerous substance is any solid, liquid or gas that has the potential to cause damage to the safety or health of workers. Exposure is frequently through inhalation, and may cause:

  • respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma, rhinitis, asbestosis and silicosis)
  • harm to inner organs, including the brain and the nervous system
  • skin irritation and diseases
  • occupational cancers (e.g. leukaemia, lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancer of the nasal cavity).

In addition, the presence of dangerous substances can put workers at risk of fire, explosion, acute poisoning and suffocation.

All workers may be at risk of being exposed to dangerous substances, but some are more at risk than others. Despite the existing legislation, reports suggest that dangerous substances are present in 38% of workplaces across the EU - with the percentage reaching almost two-thirds in certain sectors. The proportion of workers that report being exposed to chemicals for at least a quarter of their working time has not changed since 2000, remaining at around 17 %. The agriculture, manufacturing, and construction sectors are those identified where workers can be particularly at risk.

Young workers, migrant workers and temporary workers are among those most likely to be at risk from dangerous substances. This might be because they are inexperienced, uninformed or physically more vulnerable, or because they frequently change jobs, or work in sectors where awareness of the issue is low.

The issue of gender is also relevant in the topic of dangerous substances. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to prevention may fail to protect women at work. At the most basic level, personal protective equipment purchased for men may not adequately protect women. Furthermore, contact with dangerous chemicals, such as formaldehyde, cytostatic drugs, biocides, hair dyes and some biological agents, occurs in female-dominated service sectors such as healthcare, cosmetology, catering, care work and the cleaning industry. This means that women are exposed to these substances more often than men. However, research suggests that the exposure is less often monitored and addressed than in male-dominated industrial jobs. Read more here.

There are three main information activities that we have to take regarding dangerous substances.

We need to raise awareness of the issues surrounding dangerous substances. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that young people may think that problems related to dangerous substances are largely solved. After all, asbestos and other substances have been banned in many countries for many years.  Sadly, this is not the case, the legacy impact of asbestos is still with us. If people – especially employers – are not aware of a problem, they are not going to take the necessary action to protect workers.

At the same time, we need to inform all those with duties at work - including suppliers, employers, managers, inspectors, and workers - of these duties and why those duties exist. Under EU legislation, the primary responsibility falls on the employer to protect workers from all hazards and risks in the workplace. In the EU there is a clear hierarchy of prevention that should be applied, so that just providing personal protective equipment may not be enough to comply with relevant legislation. Elimination is the priority and is often possible!

And we need to provide information about good practices and tools to facilitate prevention. Each workplace is different, so it is not possible to provide exact solutions to each workplace, but we can share ideas, approaches, and workflows that work and have been put into practice to support action in other workplaces. Additionally, in this increasing digitalised age, we can propose new and innovative resources to improve prevention. This may be in the form of tools to support effective risk assessment, but it may be also improved methods of monitoring exposures. 

In short, we need to create a prevention culture that protects all workers throughout their working life. This life-course, diversity-sensitive approach should reflect the diverse workforce and how we change over time, both physically and mentally.

EU OSHA is running a two-year campaign to support the development of a prevention culture relating to dangerous substances. This campaign, running to the end of the year provides a vast array of materials in 25 languages. The information is free to access, download and use, and includes the famous NAPO character! It can be access from this website