Women, Work and Cancer

European Trade Union Institute Conference Women Work and Cancer held on 4/5 December at ETUI Headquarters in Brussels – a Report by Moira Adams.

With many thanks to the Hazards Campaign who gave me one of their funded places, I was able to attend this conference in Brussels.  The two-day conference covered many aspects of how cancer affects women in the workplace and started with the sobering statistic that 5% of all cancers are directly related to occupation.

On day 1, there was much discussion on asbestos and also on the hazards of cytotoxic substances in the workplace. It was acknowledged that there were many studies on chemical/environmental links to cancer but that some of them are contradictory. The main difficulty is separating the environmental links from the occupational links. However, as with asbestos and cigarette smoke, there is growing confidence that eventually there will be definitive proof of cause and effect. In the meantime, I was heartened to hear the conference advocate for the implementation of the Precautionary Principal[1].

The morning session of Day 2 concentrated on the difficulties women face returning to work after cancer and the different employment rights across Europe. Half of all women diagnosed with breast cancer in Europe are of working age and 1 in 10 are either not able to go back to work, go back with reduced hours or are excluded completely[2]. Therefore, the economic and social repercussions of a cancer diagnosis is considerable, with loss of earnings during treatment and, quite often, reduced hours after returning to work. In many cases loss of and/or reduced earnings also means a loss of pension contributions and so the repercussions are ongoing[3].

In the afternoon, there was a presentation on breast cancer and occupational exposure. An interesting talk was given on the Danish decision to acknowledge the link between night shift and breast cancer and the legislation which was enacted to compensate women. Despite the amount of publicity this has achieved, this is the first time I had heard that the number of women actually obtaining compensation is very small. Out of 5 million women who have worked night shift for more than 25 years (legal requirement) only 150 women, so far have received compensation. Apparently, there is a huge difference between medical causality of a disease and legal proof for the purposes of compensation.

The conference ended with a panel of fairly high level European Ministers, who answered many frank questions from the floor regarding protection for workers. The European priority at present is to create a sustainable carcinogenic and mutagenic Directive but with European elections looming in May the process will curtailed. With the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the opportunity for the UK to be part of this Directive has now come to an end. However, it will be incumbent on us to follow European developments to ensure that the UK does not fall behind and that workers’ protection from carcinogenic substances in the UK remains high on our political agenda.  


[1] Precautionary Principle states that “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

[2] In France, there is legislation against discrimination but this is seldom challenged.

[3] We would be interested to hear from anyone affected at work by a breast cancer diagnosis. Please get in touch

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