Keynote speakers Jukka Takala and Kevin Myers:
‘A demand for evidence based research’
Keynote speakers Jukka Takala and Kevin Myers are both experts in the field of work-related cancer. How can we reduce exposure to carcinogens, according to them? Below are their inspiring visions.
President of the International Association of Labour Inspection
“I sometimes feel one can get desensitized to statistics,” Kevin Myers kick-starts his keynote address, “so just to put things into context: two million people are the number of combat-related fatalities each year in the first World War – and everyone agrees that was a horrendous carnage. But the reality is: that happens, every year, across the world, with the same amount of workers dying as a consequence of just going to work.”
Myers has been involved with health and safety for some forty years in a number of operational posts with the British Health and Safety Executive. In 2014, he was elected President of the International Association of Labour Inspection. His long track record and international frame of reference allows Myers with a well-substantiated understanding of the continuous urgency of the problem: “There are a number of particular factors about developing policy to deal with occupational cancer which confound our response. One of these relates to the immediacy of safety issues in comparison to health issues. It is easier to see a safety issue than it is to see a health issue. Though arguably,” Myers adds, “that’s also a matter of awareness and education.”
‘Businesses aren’t good in investing where they don’t see immediate benefits, particularly when the costs of occupational disease are often carried by society or individuals’
Another factor relates to the lag between exposure to carcinogens and the manifestation of harm - the gap between the flash and the bang – that causes all sorts of problems in creating the evidence base. There’s also the obstacle that dealing with occupational cancer is perceived to be a specialist issue. Of course,” Myers emphasizes, “there is a need for medical and technical expertise, but we can’t subcontract health risk management to specialists. It is a management issue, and we need management to treat it as such. Sometimes, people think safety is more obvious to deal with than health, but the statistics tell you that health issues are there, hidden in plain sight, all over the working environment, and we just need to get better at identifying what they are.”
Make a difference
Later that afternoon, Myers relates how decades earlier his girlfriend’s brother pointed him in the direction of a career in health and safety inspection. “He asked me what I would be looking for in a job, and I listed a number of things: a job that is socially useful, in which you’d continue to learn, where you’d go out and meet people. ‘I know a guy with a job that sounds just like that,’ he answered, ‘as a factory inspector with the HSE.’ I looked into that, and it ticked all those boxes – and continues to do so. It’s rewarding to be able to see the difference you make trough working with people, improving standards.”
One way of making a difference advocated by Myers in his keynote speech, is to stress the point of return on investment for people to invest in addressing health issues: “Businesses are not that good in investing where they don’t see the immediate benefits, particularly when the costs of failure to manage occupational health are often carried by society or individuals. I think one of the challenges for us is to collect a better evidence base that demonstrates how investing in improved control of health-related issues does give an immediate return on investment.”
I saw three ships (come sailing in)
Referring to an old English carol, Myers denominates three metaphorical ships needed to effectively manage carcinogens in the working environment. The first is ownership: to get people who create risks to take ownership of their occupational health and safety risks. The second is leadership: to not only own the risks, but also to take leadership in dealing with them. Third: partnership, to ensure cooperation with partners, advisors, insurance companies, and workers. “What we need to do over the next three days”, Myers concludes, “is to work out how we can get better at changing the approach to the exposure of workers to occupational carcinogens when they’re at work.”
‘It is easier to see a safety issue than it is to see a health issue’
Executive Director WSH Institute, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore
“The cancer epidemic is a major public health concern throughout the world. There is, however, only a slowly increasing awareness of the role of working conditions play to cancer. It was twenty- five years ago that the European Union adopted its first global directive for improving the workplace prevention of work-related cancer. This was an important contribution to modern legislation on workers’ protection. But now, it is time to adapt the legislation and the policy to the new knowledge and emerging risks.
The main purpose of this conference is to establish clear arguments for a stronger policy to combat carcinogens at work. We have an ambitious goal: to eliminate occupational cancer in Europe and throughout the world. Throughout the conference, we will be able to discuss further the basic principles of effective prevention and calls for systematic action on the part of the various stakeholders. A fundamental principle of this conference is the belief that occupational cancers are limitable and that prevention can save many workers’ lives. By preventing and limiting the spread of cancer, we will be able to contribute considerably to the public health of European citizens, and over time, more globally.
Level of interest
The UK and the Netherlands have had the longest standing interest in combatting carcinogens in the workplace. Indeed, the problem appears to be the most serious in British society, but this is largely because they have done the most research. Even though the Netherlands has been working on limiting the damage caused by carcinogens, it is very difficult to get things done whether within a country, within Europe or more globally.
‘We have an ambitious goal:
to eliminate occupational
cancer in Europe and
throughout the world’
The only way to create a higher level of interest in this issue is through producing more evidenced based research. About 150 billion euros per year are lost throughout the world. This means that steps taken to limit the risk of cancer in the workplace would not be a cost, as they are so often perceived, but a saving. Regrettably, many governments remain reluctant to adjust their policies and practice. The costs of cancer in the workplace justify the economic investment in combatting carcinogens.
A different problem is present in countries such as China and India, where there is massive construction underway. In these cases, there is also a great reluctance to address the problem. Here governments argue that there is no problem: but this point of view is only possible because the rates of death are yet to become apparent. The problem will surely arrive though, in about 30 years. By then they will be too late to prevent more deaths.
This conference has significant aims. Through working together, we need to influence and advocate measurable and continuous reduction of exposures caused by work globally and across regions in order to eliminate occupational cancer. An international programme should be launched on the ‘Elimination of occupational cancer’ following the WHO model of elimination of smallpox from the world and present programmes to ‘eliminate asbestosrelated diseases’, and to ‘eliminate silicosis’.
The EU must be a key driver for such programme, while the ILO and the WHO and all relevant organisations, including professional organisations, should work together. Asbestos exposure is a demonstration of how poor and slow decisions in the past related to exposures to carcinogens created a serious epidemic. More ambitious targets for the future are needed because a large percentage of workers are still exposed to carcinogens even in countries where asbestos has been banned.
International cooperation can help a lot to avoid losing time. If we want to promote an ambitious programme for ‘zero work-related cancer’, cooperation between the EU, the WHO, the ILO and other institutions would be crucial. It is vital to avoid exporting the risks from developed to
‘The EU must be a key driver’
Executive Director WSH Institute, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore