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‘No time to lose’ - Crackdown on cancer causing agents at work

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2015 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Labourers under the supervision of representatives of the Chemistry Department of the University of the West Indies load asbestos pipes into a container at Burke Road in Old Harbour, St Catherine, in 2007.
Helene Davis-Whyte
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With an estimated 31,000 people dying in Latin America and the Caribbean annually from work-related cancer, the regional branch for the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is urging local businesses to join its No Time to Lose campaign.

This is aimed at getting businesses to help protect staff members from cancer.

According to the IOSH, occupational exposure to asbestos, pesticide, tobacco, sun, benzene, crystalline and silica are among the factors contributing to cancer risk in the workplace.

In Jamaica, the detection of asbestos in some workplaces in recent times has increased fears among workers about their cancer risk. The Statistical Institute of Jamaica, the National Water Commission, the Jamaica Fire Brigade and the St Joseph's Hospital are among organisations where asbestos has been detected in recent years.

Vice-president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, Helene Davis-Whyte, told The Sunday Gleaner that the risk of work-related cancer is becoming a serious concern for employees, and as such, they have been engaging the services of experts to conduct audit at certain workplaces for traces of asbestos and other dangerous compounds.

"There were instances at the Trench Town Fire Station and the Port Royal Fire Station, where we identified that the asbestos was, in fact, breaking up, and that was the point at which you could get cancer.

"We insisted on them bringing in the experts and they found that our concern was not unfounded, and so they ended up having to remove and replace the roof at both of those stations," said Davis-Whyte.

She said there are also concerns about the health of firefighters who participated in containing the blaze at the Riverton dump earlier this year, as an air-quality report commissioned by the health ministry noted that high levels of hazardous substances were found.

"We were concerned when information came out that some of the particles that were released in the environment could, in fact, have carcinogenic effects.

"So what we have done is to ensure that the Fire Brigade puts in place regular and constant medical checks so that those persons who were exposed would be able to be identified as early as possible," said Davis-Whyte.

MAJORITY IN PRODUCTIVE YEARS

Executive director of the Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS), Yulit Gordon, told The Sunday Gleaner that the organisation screens about 18,000 Jamaicans annually for cancers of the breast, cervix and prostate, which are the three most prevalent cancers in the country.

She said the majority of persons diagnosed with cancer were in their productive years.

"Cancer is affecting Jamaicans in their most productive years, which is also negatively impacting productivity within the workforce, directly resulting from the lengthy recovery process," she said.

In 2014, the JCS provisionally diagnosed 128 women with breast cancer, who were all between the ages of 40 and 55, while of the 1,207 men screened for prostate cancer in that same year, 49 were positively diagnosed.

"For cervical cancer, the society is seeing a high prevalence of abnormal Pap smears within the 25 to 35 age group. These are women in their most productive years, who are employed to the Jamaican workforce," said Gordon.

During a presentation of the No Time to Lose campaign to health and safety professionals in Trinidad and Tobago last week, vice-chair of the IOSH Caribbean branch, Navin Ragoo, called on businesses to ensure that the health of their staff is protected.

"There is rightly a lot of focus on preventing workplace accidents such as falls from height. However, it is equally important that businesses ensure that the health of their staff is protected," he said.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com