Opinion

Building support to eliminate asbestos-related diseases

Dr Jukka Takala is president of ICOH, International Commission on Occupational Health

It seems incredible that, more than a century after the potentially fatal effects of asbestos use were first reported in Britain – the most prolific user of the mineral at the time, there are countries that continue to put workers and their families at risk by mining and using it.

Latest estimates suggest as many as a quarter of a million lives may be lost every year to the work-related effects of exposure to asbestos.

I have been pleased to support the IOSH No Time to Lose campaign over the past four years as it tackles the global burden of occupational cancer in a practical way by enlisting the support of companies, the OSH professionals who dedicate their working lives to the health and wellbeing of their colleagues, transnational organisations like the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), and the Workplace Safety and Health Institute in Singapore, to which I am affiliated.

We need broad international collaboration to recognise and market new and evidence-based practices. In recent discussions with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), we concluded that, of all types, occupational cancer is both a feasible and realistic target for action. Of all occupational carcinogens, asbestos remains the most lethal.

In the ICOH statement Global Asbestos Ban and the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases, (bit.ly/2FM8ODp), we urge every country to implement a total ban on production and use of asbestos. ICOH also urges complementary efforts aimed at primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of asbestos-related diseases through country-specific national programmes, in line with International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

We need international collaboration to recognise and market new evidence-based practices

To date, the import, export and use of asbestos has been banned in 62 countries. However, major producers and users, such as Russia, China, Kazakhstan and India, refuse to acknowledge the long-latency carcinogenic effects of workers’ exposure to asbestos fibres. These four countries and Indonesia are the main consumers of asbestos, and many smaller nations do not restrict exposure to it.

I propose a global programme to “eliminate occupational cancer – zero tolerance to occupational cancer”, which is supported by all key global stakeholders, in particular ILO, WHO including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the EU. Professional organisations, such as IOSH, ICOH and Collegium Ramazzini, should contribute to this as best they can.

An integrated approach to occupational safety and health that draws on high-quality data, targets and indicators is important, but significant differences between countries must be considered, such as labour inspection resources or occupational health services.

At ICOH 2018 in Dublin from 29 April to 4 May, we will convene a global forum under the heading “prevention of occupational cancer: global policies and strategies”.

Leading policymakers and experts will come together and discuss with congress participants the policies, strategies and practices for occupational cancer prevention. They will look at how the practical implementation of policies and strategies and research and expert knowledge can help to narrow the implementation gap in application.

The asbestos element of the No Time to Lose campaign, launched on 9 April, will play an important role in reaching vulnerable workers worldwide.

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