GUEST BLOG: ‘Dark Satanic Mills’
Published 10 Feb 2017
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 those changes were made?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees: this is the story of how industry is ducking out of 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. But the number of workplace cancers and related deaths could be much reduced, even eliminated, if there were strict limits for exposure to cancer-causing 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 appear to be content 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 the victims. Without laws that force employers to protect workers, this picture won’t improve.
Every year, the societal costs of work-related cancers in the EU exceed £2 billion, with the price paid by cancer sufferers, their family and friends even higher. Yet occupational cancers are avoidable, and it is an injustice that people remain exposed to carcinogenic substances at work simply because employers want keep company costs down.
So, why doesn’t EU regulation force companies to take better care of their employees? Corporate Europe Observatory believes that is is because of industry lobbying that improvement in workplace cancer laws have been delayed for over 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 have potentially gone unsaved.
When the Commission finally published proposals to revise the out of date directive relating to workplace carcinogens in May 2016 (the Carginogens and Mutagens Directive), they chose to ignore calls from several EU governments, health bodies and trade unions for a greater number of tougher exposure limits that would help to protect workers. Industry, however, was happy: it 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. It has also worked hard to ensure that proposed new exposure limits are 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 caused by silica exposure in the EU every year.
Now industry lobbies have been urging the European Parliament not to ‘slow things down’ by changing the Commission’s proposal. A cluster of the biggest industry lobby groups in Brussels sent a joint letter to members of the European Parliament’s Employment Committee, discouraging amendments that would promote stricter (i.e. lower) exposure limits, better monitoring of employees’ health and the addition of other dangerous substances to the regulation. CEO’s view is that it is the job of parliamentarians to reflect the interests of the public who’ve elected them, not protect the profits of corporate lobbies at the expense of the health of millions of workers across Europe. It is therefore vital that we get stricter limits and additional dangerous substances into the proposal now.
The responsible committee is scheduled to vote on the revised Carcinogens Directive 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.
Rachel Tansey is a freelance writer, researcher and author of Corporate Europe Observatory’s report Better Regulation to make things worse: Industry tactics to delay and weaken workplace cancer laws. Corporate Europe Observatory is a Brussels-based NGO that exposes and challenges the corporate capture of EU policy-making