X-ray showing potential lung cancer
Dark satanic mills: Lobbyists fight against EU’s workplace cancer protection
If you were told that more than 100,000 premature deaths in Europe each year could be prevented with a few policy changes, wouldn’t you think it was about time? Unfortunately not everyone agrees: this is the story of how industry is ducking its responsibility to protect workers from cancer-causing substances at work.
In many workplaces, exposure to carcinogens is still one of the biggest health risks, and the number of workplace cancers and related deaths could be much reduced, even eliminated, if there were strict limits for exposure to dangerous substances.
Yet the very mention of stricter regulation puts many employers on the defensive. Lobby groups that represent industry towards the European Union have just upped their fight in a barrage of lobbying against stricter rules that would save the lives of tens of thousands of workers.
It defies belief that in 21st century Europe we still see companies maximising profits at the expense of their employees’ well-being. Workers are exposed to dangerous substances, while companies reap the profits.
But employers’ associations are happy with this status quo, because the huge health and social costs linked to occupational cancers are not borne by the companies that produce the risks. Instead, these costs are forced onto society and specifically working people.
Every year, the societal costs of work-related cancers in the EU exceed £2billion, with the price paid by cancer sufferers and their families even higher. Yet occupational cancers are avoidable.
So, why doesn’t EU regulation force companies to take better care of their employees? As a result of industry lobbying, the European Commission delayed any improvement to workplace cancer laws for a decade. Given the estimated 100,000 avoidable deaths from workplace cancers in Europe in each of those ten years, that’s a million lives that went unsaved.
When the Commission finally presented a proposal for revising the EU Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive in May 2016, the draft contained far too few exposure limits for carcinogenic substances, and the ones featured were much too lax. Calls for more and stricter exposure limits from several EU governments, health bodies and trade unions had gone unheeded. Industry, however, was happy: they had lobbied hard to delay rules and to keep them as ineffective as possible.
A crucial tool that helped industry in this endeavour was the Commission’s so-called ‘Better Regulation’ agenda. Initially set up to streamline EU rule-making processes, its rhetoric and tools have been used by corporate lobbies to pre-empt, delay, and weaken much-needed regulation at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment. ‘Better Regulation’ has generally meant ‘better for big business’.
One example of industry tactics is the case of silica dust. Exposure to silica dust, a cause of lung cancer, is common in mining, construction and metal work. Industry used a voluntary agreement to keep regulatory restrictions at bay for ten years. When it became clear that rules could no longer be avoided, industry lobbies worked hard to keep the exposure limits as weak as possible.
The resulting Commission proposal for silica dust exposure is two times higher than the limit recommended by trade unions, and twice as high as the exposure limit in the US. The Commission’s proposed limit would fail to prevent around 2000 deaths across the EU every year.
And now industry lobbies have been urging the European Parliament to accept the Commission’s proposal. A cluster of the biggest industry lobby groups in Brussels have sent a joint letter to members of the Parliament’s employment committee, discouraging amendments that would promote stricter exposure limits, better monitoring of employees’ health, or the addition of other dangerous substances to the regulation.
The committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal on 28 February 2017, which leaves a month to really bring home the importance of tougher rules for so many workers in Europe. Ultimately, the outcome of the vote will depend on the way our elected representatives assess the importance of costs to businesses against costs to human life.