Work-related cancers will claim thousands of lives each year for a further working generation as a result of the “shocking complacency” of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a new report is warning.
The report, called Burying the Evidence: How the UK is prolonging the occupational cancer epidemic, warns that the HSE has neither the resources nor the strategy to tackle the workplace carcinogen exposures killing at least 12,000 people each year.
Written by Professors Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill of the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, Burying the Evidence says the HSE’s action plan – unveiled at a London seminar last week – omits a range of occupational cancers, grossly under-estimates the risks of other cancers, and excludes some of the most high risk groups of workers entirely.
Professor Watterson says that the HSE’s recommendations for action range from complacent to non-existent:
“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on cancer causing substances including benzene, cadmium, diesel exhaust and wood dust are error-ridden, inadequate and outdated, whole categories of workers known to be at high risk are ignored, and HSE cannot quantify and continues to neglect the risk to women.”
Watterson also warns that breast cancer, the major occupational and environmental cancer risk for women, is entirely off the HSE’s radar:
“The net result of this shocking complacency will be needless exposures and avoidable deaths.”
The report puts the cost to the UK of occupational cancer deaths at between £29.5bn and £59bn a year, and notes that preventing just 100 of these deaths a year would more than offset the entire annual HSE budget.
Professor Rory O’Neill says:
“The HSE’s approach will do little or nothing to reduce either the volumes or the numbers of cancer-causing substances used in Britain’s workplaces. This guarantees a new working generation will face a preventable cancer risk. Asbestos still kills thousands every year and the epidemic has yet to peak. We are already seeing evidence of cancers in microelectronic workers, an industry just one working generation old, and it is anybody’s guess how work in the nanotech industry will impact on health.”
Only a small proportion of industrial chemicals have been tested thoroughly for chronic health effects, he adds.
The report was prepared for the Cancer Prevention Coalition, an alliance of academics, trade unions and environmental and occupational cancer campaigners. Hilda Palmer of the Hazards Campaign, a member of the coalition, says:
“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 coalition says the UK government should recognise work-related cancers as a major public health priority.
Workplace Law questioned Professor Andrew Watterson further about the report. Click here to read the interview in full.