The workplace is important in the fight against cancer

In the context of World Cancer Day, it is important to remember that occupational cancer, addressed by Convention 139, is preventable since appropriate measures are adopted, recalls the specialist in occupational safety and health of the ILO in Latin America and the Caribbean, Renato Bignami*.

Comment | 03 February 2021
World Cancer Day, this February 4, was originally instituted to increase society's awareness in regard to this serious disease that still kills millions of people annually.

The date originated in the year 2000, at the first World Summit against Cancer held in Paris. At this meeting, leaders of government agencies and organizations against cancer from around the world signed the Charter of Paris against Cancer, which describes a cooperative global commitment to improving the quality of life of cancer patients and the continued investment in research, prevention and treatment of cancer.

Article X of the aforementioned document formally declared February 4 as World Cancer Day "so that each year, the Charter of Paris will be in the hearts and minds of people around the world."

Among the cancers that could affect people, occupational cancer is completely preventable as long as adequate measures are adopted to avoid exposing workers to carcinogens in the workplace. Therein proper occupational safety and health (OSH) strategies are essential to protect workers and society.

Occupational carcinogens are chemical substances, physical or biological agents and work processes that, by their nature and levels of exposure, pose considerable risk to the worker. The causal relationship between occupational carcinogens and lung, bladder, laryngeal and skin cancers, leukemia, and nasopharyngeal cancer is well documented in the scientific literature regarding preventive occupational health.

In order to effectively prevent occupational cancers, adequate health and safety measures must be adopted at the workplace level. These standards aim to ensure that activities involving the use of one or more carcinogens do not represent a danger to the health of workers and people who live in the vicinity of the plant.

In addition, it is essential to observe all possible modes of contamination and the circumstances under which it may occur. Carcinogens can enter the body through inhalation (vapors, mists, dusts), skin absorption (splashes, soiled work clothes), or ingestion (eating with soiled hands, smoking, etc.). The nature and scope of preventive measures may vary therefore, depending on the situation and context.

In a global and structuring way, the ILO framework conventions on safety and health at work establish the strategic approach adopted by the ILO. These standards converge into core international norms, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), and its Protocol, the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161), and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187).

These norms indicate, among other obligations, that a tripartite composed organism should discuss and agree on national policies and programs aimed at improving health and safety conditions and preventing work accidents and diseases. Under a specific approach, the ILO Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139) displays clear and common sense guidelines that should be followed in order to prevent this serious disease.

The ratifying countries should determine the carcinogenic agents that are prohibited or subject to control at the workplace level, and ensure that these substances are replaced by non-carcinogenic or less harmful products. In addition, they should describe the measures taken in order to protect workers against the risks of exposure to carcinogens, such as minimizing the duration and levels of exposure.

Not to mention the importance of the ILO Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170), which establishes some measures in regard to the classification and communication of the dangers related to chemical products to workers, as well as the evaluation and monitoring of the exposure of workers to chemical products.

In this regard, aware that an adequate response to the challenges endured by its constituents must be offered, the ILO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean has launched a regional initiative that aims to position occupational safety and health as the axis of the policies directed to the economic recovery in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Proceeding this way, ILO pursues to achieve a timely and quality return to the demands of the tripartite constituents in this matter.

It is important to remember that safety and health at work is a fundamental element of decent work, and thus, of sustainable development and the well-being of the population.

*Renato Bignami is an occupational safety and health specialist for the ILO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. He wrote this article with the technical support of Carmen Bueno and Ariel Pino.