Back to Hazards news


Killer Chemicals


Unions say ‘Don’t work with killer chemicals’

Union organisations are demanding an end to the lax safety procedures that mean millions of workers are being routinely and needlessly exposed to industrial quantities of deadly substances, with many thousands dying each year as a result. Workers are being advised against working with unfamiliar workplace substances, unless a full assessment of the risks has been undertaken and safe working practices are in place.

Marcello Malentacchi, General Secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, said: “You wouldn’t take a swig from an unmarked bottle, because it could clearly be corrosive or poison. In the same way we don’t think workers should be required to work with – quite literally – industrial quantities of potentially toxic substances, unless the risks have been properly assessed and the safest sensible means of control have been implemented.”

Speaking ahead of a 27 April World Health Organisation seminar on the prevention of occupational and environment cancer in Geneva, he said: “Employers are still attached to the use of cancer causing substances at work, when safer substances or work methods could eliminate this risk entirely. Commonsense measures could save many thousands of lives each year.”

Anita Normark, General Secretary of the Building Workers’ International (BWI), told the seminar a new global union “zero cancer” campaign would call on workplace regulators and employers to do more to end the worldwide epidemic of occupational cancer, which claims at least one life every 52 seconds.

"Bad, and often illegal, working conditions cause ill health that mean disaster for hundreds of thousands of families every year,” said Normark. “The social invisibility of the impact of working conditions on our health creates a vicious circle where diseases are not recognised as occupational, so they are not recorded, notified, treated or compensated and, worst of all, they are not prevented.”

Normark added: “Occupational cancer is the most common work-related cause of death, ahead of other work-related diseases and accidents, but it is not taken seriously by regulators or employers. Asbestos alone accounts for an estimated 100,000 deaths each year. While our global campaign to ban deadly asbestos is gaining momentum, much more needs to be done to prevent exposure to asbestos which is already present in millions of buildings and workplaces all over the world.”

The unions say where non-cancer causing alternatives are available, they should be used. If this is not possible alternative processes and safe work methods should be employed.

A global “zero cancer” campaign aimed at tackling the number one workplace killer was launched today, one day prior to April 28 International Workers’ Memorial Day.

A coalition of 11 global unions together representing over 300 million members in more than 150 countries has produced a new cancer prevention guide, which reveals that over 600,000 deaths a year – one death every 52 seconds – are caused by occupational cancer, making up almost one-third of all work-related deaths.

IMF General Secretary Marcello Malentacchi said: “This epidemic has to stop. Trade unions in hundreds of countries have joined the campaign. We’ll be calling for widespread workplace mapping, inquiries and surveys, and a big drive to get rid of the top killers, such a achieving a global ban on asbestos.”

Occupational Cancer/Zero Cancer: a union guide to prevention, available at , provides information about workplace cancer risks and advice on practical steps workers and unions can take to make workplaces safer.

Notes to editors:

1. Occupational Cancer/Zero Cancer: a union gude to prevention is published in English, French, Spanish and Russian on the IMF website at

2. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that occupational cancer causes over 600,000 deaths a year – one death every 52 seconds – making up almost one-third of all work-related deaths.

3. A World Health Organisation (WHO) study concluded 20-30 per cent of males and 5-20 per cent of females in the working-age population could have been exposed to an occupational lung cancer risk during their working lives.

4. The European Union’s CAREX database of occupational exposures to carcinogens estimated that in the early 1990s 22-24 million workers in the then 15 EU member states were exposed to possible carcinogens.

5. The zero cancer coalition includes the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Building Workers’ International (BWI), Education International (EI), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), Public Services International (PSI), UNI Global Union (UNI) and the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF).

6. ILO’s 1974 occupational cancer convention (C.139) has only been ratified by 35 countries worldwide. ILO’s 1986 asbestos convention (C.162) is ratified by fewer countries still, with just 29 countries signed up.

For further details, interviews or photos please contact:

Anita Gardner, IMF Press, on: + 41 79 815 72 51


Toni Mast, BWI, on: +41 (0) 22 827 3784

(English, Swedish)

Background information: