"Justice delayed is justice denied." -- William E. Gladstone, British statesman and prime minister, 1809-1898


About 1 million women, according to the Cancer Prevention Coalition (preventcancer.com), work in industries that expose them to more than 50 carcinogens linked to breast cancer.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a large number of cases, cancer is preventable. This fact applies especially to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals in the workplace.

“At least one in every 10 cancers – and probably many more – is the result of preventable, predictable workplace exposures,” according to Occupational Cancer/Zero Cancer: Union Guide to Prevention.

"The history of occupational health and safety is full of stories about workers dying prematurely of cancer." - Workplace Roulette: Gambling with CancerThe prospects for justice for blue-collar workers who develop cancer from workplace exposure to carcinogenic chemicals are dismal even though the problem is pressing. “There is an undeniable correlation between employment in lower-status, lower-social-class jobs and an increased risk of developing a work-related cancer,” according to Matthew Firth, James Brophy and Margaret Keith in Workplace Roulette: Gambling with Cancer (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997).

“Most studies and statistics,” the book continues, “indicate that work-related cancer is common among blue-collar workers. … The history of occupational health and safety is full of stories about workers dying prematurely of cancer.”

In a paper presented to the President’s Cancer Panel on Oct. 5, 1995, titled “Cancer and Blue-Collar Workers: Who Cares?” Peter F. Infante drew two conclusions:

1) We need “a much greater effort nationally to study occupational carcinogens. Our failure to make that effort is resulting in a disproportionate (and preventable) cancer burden being borne by blue-collar workers.”

2) More funding needs to be allocated to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) budget to develop “better control technology that will result in the reduction of human exposure to carcinogenic substances found in the workplace.”

Infante knows what he’s talking about. He served for nearly three decades as a public health epidemiologist with the U.S.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Centers for Disease Control’s NIOSH.

At OSHA, Infante directed the Office of Carcinogen Identification and Classification and then became director of the Office of Standards Review in the Health Standards Program, which was responsible for establishing permissible exposure limits for toxic substances and agents found in the workplace.

In the 1970s, Infante investigated the carcinogenic potential of vinyl chloride and published a well-received study linking occupational benzene exposure and leukemia.

Currently he is at the School of Public Health and Health Services, George Washington University.

Infante said, “Most carcinogens have been discovered by workplace exposures.”

According to Infante, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the expert cancer body of the World Health Organization, “concluded that 62 substances or processes are carcinogenic to humans, and 34 (55 percent) have been identified by studying workers.”


The IARC recognizes cancer as a hazard for people who paint for a living.

Painters and other workers can be fired at the whim of the employer, and for those who develop cancer from occupational exposure, there is little redress.

Take, for example, the case of Roland Sheppard, for 30 years a house painter in San Francisco. In 1995 he developed cancer, a rapidly growing squamous cell carcinoma, of the nasal septum. Sheppard was lucky twice over: one, his physicians gave him two years to live, and he’s still alive; two, he sued his past employers, doing much of the legal work himself, and won a $300,000 settlement. It took him five years to win his case. He credits his success partly to the fact that he was a union official at the time and had access to lawyers and information about painters and cancer.
"Most carcinogens have been discovered by workplace exposures." - Peter F. Infante, President’s Cancer Panel, 1995
Sheppard is an exception to the rule. In general, it’s difficult to obtain compensation for a job-related cancer resulting from a chemical exposure. Most workmen’s compensation laws are “written in the interest of the employer,” Sheppard said in a phone interview. “Legislators,” he said, “are in the pocket of the insurance companies,” and OSHA regulations are a compromise between the agency and industry.

Painters, Sheppard says, are exposed to over 150 carcinogens present in paint, both latex and oil based. Latex contains the known carcinogen formaldehyde. Latex causes reproductive problems as well as cancer, and the carcinogens in it are absorbed by the skin and inhaled, according to Sheppard.

Most painters are unaware of the dangers of exposure to the carcinogens in paint. They usually have no protection from the chemicals in paint, whereas they should be wearing protective gear, including a respirator, like people who work with asbestos, says Sheppard.

OSHA doesn’t have the funding to pay for enough workplace health and safety inspectors. Furthermore, there is a “revolving door” between industry and government. Industry is supposed to “police itself,” said Sheppard. The way to police industry, he asserts, is “to make it more expensive for a workplace to be unsafe than to be safe.”

Industry, in collusion with the government, puts “profits before people’s lives,” Sheppard said.

Any painter who’s been exposed to carcinogens on the job and develops cancer needs, first, to find a sympathetic and knowledgeable lawyer, according to Sheppard. “OSHA,” he says, “ will do nothing but finger you to your employer if you complain.”

If you aren’t a member of a union and visit a health practitioner about a workplace illness, your employer is told, and you’re fired. If you file a grievance with the company you work for, they’ll fire you. Your illness makes the company’s insurance premiums rise, he said.


“In the early 1900s, canaries were routinely taken down into the mines,” infante said. “The men used these canaries to give them the first sign of possible disaster or death. When the canaries passed out or died, the men knew that there was a problem with exposure to carbon monoxide and immediate action was needed. … Blue-collar workers appear to be the canaries in our society for identifying human chemical carcinogens in the general environment.”

That occupational cancer is a “sentinel for identifying carcinogenic exposures in the general environment is reason alone to justify an intensified cancer research effort in the workplace” according to Infante. Yet, our efforts to study their exposures to carcinogens, or to develop technology to decrease that exposure, or to develop safe substitutes have been relatively minimal.”
"Legislators are in the pocket of the insurance companies." - Roland Sheppard, San Francisco house painter with cancer
Why workplace exposure to carcinogens and the workers afflicted receive so little attention is a question of politics, class and social justice. As opposed to the wealthy, the working class in this country has little political clout as. Workers with occupational cancer are ignored because of the societal bias against the working class and its issues.

The neglect of workers’ exposure to occupational hazards, Infante claims, has roots in social injustice.

“Given the obvious benefits to an intensified cancer research effort directed toward the study of workers, I ask myself why it has been given so little attention,” he said. “… This is no accident. It reflects a social class bias by those gathering the data. I suggest disproportionate death from cancer among blue-collar workers is a social class issue and that the problem is neglected because it is a potentially explosive issue. It raises questions about the control of production and cost of production.”

The cancer establishment -- the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute -- promotes anticancer campaigns that have traditionally focused on personal lifestyle cancer risks, such as smoking and diet, and not on environmental causes, including workplace exposure. Furthermore, cancer-causing industries donate money to the cancer establishment and lobby for more-lax regulations.

According to Workplace Roulette, the capitalist system, which places corporate profits before all other considerations, and the social injustices that are part of it are key factors preventing progress on occupational cancer exposure.

“The political landscape,” the book says, “is dominated by powerful, multinational business interests that are demanding governments loosen regulations that control toxic exposure in the workplace. … [T]he irrational nature of our economic system is becoming more apparent. How can an economy capable of producing all the goods and services imaginable be unable to eradicate a disease that is almost totally preventable?”

Linda Greene can be reached at .