Workplace cancer prevention must be extended to reprotoxic substances

Millions of persons are exposed to substances toxic for reproduction in many work-related activities

Putting more than 10 years of paralysis behind it, the European Commission finally launched a revision of the directive on the prevention of occupational cancers in May 2016. Lawmakers can now address reprotoxic substances in the workplace, writes Laurent Vogel, a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).


The rules are insufficient as far as workplace protection is concerned. Whereas carcinogenic and mutagenic substances are the subject of more stringent prevention requirements by employers, reprotoxic substances have the “advantage” of a more lenient framework. A lot is at stake: out of 235 substances identified as proven or suspected reprotoxic substances, over 160 evade the most stringent regulation because they are not also classified as carcinogenic or mutagenic. If we confine ourselves to production volumes, the inadequately controlled risks are considerable. They concern lead, bisphenol A (a massively produced endocrine disruptor) and several phthalates.

A directive concerning the protection of pregnant or breastfeeding workers does certainly exist. But reprotoxic disorders concern men as much as women. Limiting specific measures to pregnant women may lead to various forms of discrimination. Furthermore, reprotoxic substances usually act on sex cells (eggs and spermatozoids) or on the first stages of embryo development. Rules concerning pregnant or breastfeeding workers obviously do not make it possible to prevent harmful effects on fertility. European legislation triggers a specific preventive action only from the time when a woman worker has informed her employer that she is pregnant. Such information is seldom communicated before the tenth week of pregnancy. Now, the risks for foetal development arising from chemical substances are at their highest during the first three months. Legislative provisions are therefore fairly ineffective and are likely to have stigmatising effects on pregnant women.”

Read Workplace cancer prevention must be extended to reprotoxic substances, euractiv, Mar 30, 2017.

European Trade Union Institute Publications


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