Compensation for night shift workers who develop cancer

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A ruling by the IARC (which is a United Nations agency and arm of the World Health Organisation) has found that night shift work probably increases the risk of developing cancer. In response, the Danish government has begun paying compensation to women who have developed breast cancer after long spells working nights.

These are the first government payments to women who have developed breast cancer after long spells doing night shifts. Almost 40 Danish women have received compensation to date.

The IARC claims that a wide number of studies of both humans and animals were analysed to find and categorise factors which may increase the risk of cancer. An example of a “Category One” risk would be a known carcinogen like asbestos. Night working has now been categorised by the IARC as a probable cause of cancer, which is just below a ‘Category One’ risk. Examples of risks also in this category are anabolic steroids, ultraviolet radiation and diesel engine exhaust fumes.

The IARC and other studies have proposed that the reason for this increased risk is that night shift workers appear to produce lower levels of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is known to be a powerful antioxidant and a reduced production of melatonin has been linked to having a higher risk of developing cancer.

However, this medical evidence is not yet universally accepted and even in the Danish case not every Claimant received compensation. For example, women who had a family history of breast cancer had their claims rejected.

As yet, the UK government has not accepted the IARC evidence. However, the chief medical officer of the Health and Safety Executive has said that the HSE has commissioned its own research to examine the risk of working at night and whether there is any link to breast cancer. The report will be completed in 2011.

For now, workers outside of Denmark will probably not be able to make a claim against their employer if they develop cancer after prolonged periods on a night shift. It is estimated that as many as 20% of the national workforce performs some form of night shift, so if there was a ruling in the UK backing the Danish example there could be widespread consequences.

Some unions and experts have claimed that there is growing evidence that night shifts also contribute to other health problems including disturbed sleep, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, gastro-intestinal problems and a greater risk of accidents at work.

However, as with any claim for an illness in which symptoms are felt a long time after the event that caused them, there will be legal issues such as limitation to consider before any claim can be said to have any reasonable prospect of success. Until there is a consensus on medical opinion and the legal position is confirmed by a test case or other legal precedent, it may be some time before any Claimant will receive compensation outside of Denmark.

This article was written by Emma Dickinson.


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