Labour Movement 
Takes on Workplace Carcinogens  
UPdate Fall 2002

When Bud Jimmerfield, a Canadian Auto Worker (CAW) health and safety activist, contracted cancer at the age of 47, the compensation board initially denied that his cancer was caused by the metal working fluids he worked with.  His union researched the health effects of metalworking fluids, and based on the information they presented, an appeals board agreed that Bud's cancer arose from workplace exposure. Bud's death at 49 years old was one of the inspirations for the autoworkers' "Prevent Cancer Campaign", an innovative program that puts labour movement resources into the fight against cancer.

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) recognized the importance of workplace
carcinogens, and in 2000 the "Prevent Cancer Campaign" became a nation-wide, multi-union effort.  And for good reason. Worker exposure to cancer causing substances and processes on the job means that workers in certain occupations are contracting cancer at rates well beyond those experienced by the general population.  "At least 60 different occupations have been identified as posing an
increased cancer risk. Studies show that the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers along with its cars. The steel industry is producing lung cancer along with its metal products. Miners experience respiratory cancers many times higher than expected. Electrical workers are suffering increased rates of brain cancer and leukemia. Aluminum smelter workers are contracting bladder cancer. Dry cleaners have elevated rates of digestive tract cancers. Firefighters contract brain and blood-related cancers at many times the expected levels. Women in the plastics and rubber industry are at greater risk for uterine cancer and possible breast cancer," report the Canadian Auto Workers and Occupational
Health Clinics for Ontario Workers.

A recently published three year Health Canada study found a strong relationship between renal cell carcinoma, the most common of kidney cancers, and occupational exposure to benzene, benzidine, cadmium salts, coal tar, soot, pitch, creosote or asphalt, herbicides, mineral, cutting and lubricating oil, mustard gas, isopropyl oil, pesticides and vinyl chloride. Some of these substances are linked to other cancers as well, for example benzidine is also linked to bladder cancer, and vinyl chloride to cancers of the digestive system, liver, lung, brain and lymphatic organs.

Not only industrial workers are at risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified the work of hairdressing and barbering to be probably carcinogenic. Laboratory technicians, pathologists and others who work in medically related occupations may be exposed to formaldehyde, classified by the IARC as a probable human carcinogen. Nurses and other health workers who work with chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer patients may be at higher risk of cancer  themselves as a result, the CLC reports.

For most carcinogens, the risk of cancer increases with increased exposure. The effect of exposure to several substances together can make the risk of cancer greater than from exposure to either substance separately. Workers often get a double dose of carcinogens, a major exposure at work, followed by a lower, more continuous dose in the home, the community and the environment.

Most known or probable human carcinogens have been identified through worker illnesses and deaths.  Chemicals can only be classified as known human carcinogens after many studies involving large numbers of people. Cancer patterns are more easily identified by occupation than by home or community exposures. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified 24 substances which cause lung cancer in humans. Twenty-three were identified by statistics which showed an excess mortality of workers who had been exposed to these substances. The twenty-fourth is tobacco. The CLC writes, "Tragically, we have often had to prove our case by producing dead bodies. The whole idea of a "Prevent Cancer Campaign" is that we don't rest our case on harm done, but on preventing harm."  

In 2001, the CLC organized a conference on "Preventing Cancer and Occupational /
Environmental Disease", to help union members learn how to become "cancer
detectives", identifying cancer clusters among fellow workers, and identifying, tracking, and working to eliminate carcinogens in the  workplace.

The CLC approach to cancer prevention focuses on eliminating or reducing toxic substances or processes. This could include substituting a less toxic product for a toxic one, changing industrial processes to eliminate the use of toxic substances or the creation of toxic by-products, or reformulating products to eliminate a toxic substance. The toxic reduction approach differs from the traditional industrial approach which focuses on reducing worker exposure by providing workers with protective clothing, rotating workers to decrease individual time spend at dangerous jobs, medical monitoring of workers to see when they have reached "unsafe" levels of exposure and increasing ventilation where toxic substances are present.  This approach may decrease worker exposure, but it releases the same amount of carcinogens into the environment and does little to decrease  community exposure to hazardous substances.

Being able to offer a substitution increases the chances of a successful cancer prevention campaign. Using water-based vehicle paints or vegetable based printing inks, substituting vegetable oils for mineral ones and alkaline cleaners for degreasing solvents, drying glass equipment with compressed air instead of acetone, replacing perchlorethylene dry cleaning with multi-process wet cleaning  are all practical and doable ways to decrease worker exposure and public exposure to carcinogenic substances.

In 1997, after researching the hazards of mineral based metalworking fluids, CAW health and safety representatives approached the chemical engineer at the Ford Essex Engine Plant in Windsor with a request to substitute a canola based oil for the metalworking fluids. The immediate, noticeable health effects of working with metalworking fluids are respiratory.  Many workers were having difficulty breathing by the end of their shift,  some were developing asthma, and in extreme cases
hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The canola oil substitute was first tested in the intake manifold machining area, then in two other areas. In each case workers reported that the operation was much cleaner, with much less mist in the air, that tools used in the process lasted longer, and that less fluid was needed. Management reported that the quality of the part had improved.  CAW Health and Safety Officer Cathy Walker reports that despite the increased up front costs of using canola oil, Ford has been "going great guns" replacing metal working fluids with vegetable oil in a number of engine plants.

Another substitution success story took place in a small plant making car heaters. In one area of the plant,  trichloroethylene, a carcinogen and neurotoxin, was used to degrease parts. On returning from break one day, the men found one of their co-workers collapsed on the floor. He had been overcome by fumes from an open vat of the solvent.  The incident  resulted in permanent brain damage for the worker, and a determination on the part of his co-workers  that this never happen again. They researched alternative products which would clean metal, and came up with a caustic aqueous cleaner which is much less toxic and is now being used to replace
the trichloroethylene. Walker says, "The process creates heat and humidity, because its like a giant dishwasher, but overall the conditions are much better. It's a substitution which could be repeated in many  places." It's not only workers who are exposed to workplace carcinogens. These toxic substances leave the workplace as factory emissions and waste, ingredients in consumer products, and often as residues on clothing, to which worker's families are then exposed. The extent of health and environmental risks from long term, low level exposure to toxic substances is just beginning to be understood.

In Windsor and Vancouver, unions and community groups are working together to reduce toxic exposures. The Toxins and Cleaners campaign organized by the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS) in BC is one example. The project works principally with janitorial workers, to identify the most toxic substances being used and find ways to replace or eliminate them.  LEAS Executive director Mae Burrows explains, "In Burnaby, we worked with CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] in the school system. Janitors gave us a list of the cleaning products they used. We researched the ingredients, and found that on every janitor's cart there was at least one known carcinogen, two endocrine disruptors which effect fertility, one known neurotoxin which was absorbed through the skin, and one reproductive toxin." LEA worked with CUPE, a parent's committee, and a co-operative school board. Six months after the project started, all the products
containing these substances had been eliminated, and the cost to school boards was actually less.

British Columbia is the only province in Canada which has legislation which supports efforts to reduce the use of toxic materials at the workplace. The British Columbia Occupational Health and Safety Regulations require that whenever a workplace carcinogen is in use, "the employer must replace it, whenever practicable, with a material which reduces the risk to workers." The regulation also specifies that "if it is not practicable to substitute a material which reduces the risk to workers, the employer must implement an exposure control plan to maintain workers' exposure as low as reasonably achievable below the exposure limit." When legislation doesn't exist, another way that unions can gain protection from carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals is by negotiating language in collective agreements. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Chrysler included a clause on reducing toxic materials in a recent contract. "The Company supports the principle of toxic use reduction through its policy and programs. Materials and processes shall be formulated to eliminate, wherever feasible, constituents that are considered potentially hazardous or that could possibly harm the environment or health of the customer or employee or adversely affect the occupational safety of an employee."
The process of identifying carcinogenic substances is complex. Since data relating cancers with their causes are critical for identifying, and in the long term eliminating, carcinogenic substances, the CLC is also pressuring the federal government to include occupational data in a national cancer registry. This process can start locally. The cancer treatment centre in Windsor, Ontario now records the occupational history of every patient.


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