Recommend this page

Stay up to date on news and events in the BWI. Join our email news service!

23 March 2007

PRESS RELEASE: Hidden cancer epidemic kills hundreds of thousands each year

A worldwide epidemic of occupational cancer is killing one person every minute, but this tragedy is being ignored by both official regulators and employers. This stark warning comes from a global union coalition, which this week launched stage one of a "zero cancer" campaign to tackle what it says is the No.1 workplace killer worldwide.

Anita Normark, General Secretary of the Building Workers International highlights the problem: "Bad, and often illegal, working conditions cause ill health that mean disaster for hundreds of thousands of families every year. The social invisibility of the impact of working conditions on our health creates a vicious circle where diseases are not recognised as occupational, so they are not recorded and notified,therefore they are not properly treated or compensated and, worst of all, they are not prevented. Health and safety is top priority for unions in the building and timber trades, where our people are exposed to a wide range of nasty, cancer causing substances."

The global unions have produced a a new cancer prevention guide, which reveals that over 600,000 deaths a year – one death every 52 seconds – are caused by occupational cancer, making up almost one-third of all work-related deaths. The guide launches the first ever international zero occupational cancer campaign, involving 11 global trade union organisations together representing over 300 million members in more than 150 countries.

Normark continues: "Our global campaign to ban deadly asbestos is gaining momentum but much more needs to be done to prevent exposure to asbestos which is already present in millions of buildings all over the world. This year we want to expand our asbestos campaign to cover other cancer causing substances in our sectors, for example silica from cement; wood dust; organic solvents in glues, paints, lacquers and wood finishes; deadly pesticides used in forestry and in timber treatments; asphalt used in roofing and paving, and the dangers of skin cancer from outdoor work. We need to alert workers to the hazards and the prevention measures that should be in place. This year for Workers International Memorial Day, around 28th April, hundreds of unions in the building and timber trades will be carrying out training and campaigning activities on the prevention of workplace accidents and ill health."

Occupational Cancer/Zero Cancer: a union guide to prevention, published today, provides information about workplace cancer risks and advice on practical steps workers and unions can take to make workplaces safer and is being distributed with action guidelines to unions worldwide.

Notes to editors:

1.Occupational Cancer/Zero Cancer: a union gude to prevention is published in English on the IMF website at
Copies in French, Spanish and Russian will follow.

2.According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that occupational cancer causes over 600,000 deaths a year – one death every 52 seconds – making up almost one-third of all work-related deaths.

3.A World Health Organisation (WHO) study concluded 20-30 per cent of males and 5-20 per cent od females ion the working-age population could have been exposed to an occupational lung cancer risk during their working lives.

4.The European Union’s CAREX database of occupational exposures to carcinogens estimated that in the early 1990s 22-24 million workers in the then 15 EU member states were exposed to carcinogens classified as group 1 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer – those known to cause cancer in humans.

5.The zero cancer coalition includes the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Building Workers’ International (BWI), Education International (EI), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), Public Services International (PSI), UNI Global Union (UNI) and the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF).

6. ILO’s 1974 occupational cancer convention (C.139) has only been ratified by 35 countries worldwide. ILO’s 1986 asbestos convention (C.162) is ratified by fewer countries still, with just 29 countries signed up.



For further details, interviews or photos please contact:
Fiona Murie, Director of Health and Safety, Building workers International