Breast cancer, night work and gender inequality in the workplace

Annette LEXA

Doctor in Toxicology EUROTOX

The topic of breast cancer risk in workplace is a neglected subject

While, according to European statistics, approximately 7% of employees in the EU work at night (7.2% in France in 2010), studies on the risk of breast cancer in the workplace receive little attention. There is little scientific literature on this subject. This lack of interest is all the more paradoxical since early detection of breast cancer in women has been the subject of extreme – even meticulous – attention by technocrats and their battalions of territorial health officials since ministerial order of 2006 .

In France, primary prevention in the workplace, improvement of working conditions, occupational medicine monitoring of women at risk (night work, flight attendants) are not part of the cancer plan or the 2006 order 3 .

However, since 2008, night shift work (with irregularly alternating periods of day and night work) has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable human carcinogen. The IARC relied on animal models and epidemiological studies of jetlagged night nurses and flight attendants. These studies show an increased risk of developing breast cancer among these women compared to those who work in conventional workplaces. Night work is thought to disrupt the internal biological clock that regulates the alternation of sleep and wakefulness. In the long term, night-time exposure to light blocks the synthesis of melatonin (sleep hormone) and this leads to a decrease of immune defenses.

It is also thought that this exposure to light could alter the expression of certain genes that can lead to formation of cancer cells. The role of melatonin on estrogens is thought to explain the excess risk of breast cancer 1 and 6. On the other hand, the role of occupational exposures in the development of breast cancer in men (the male individual) has been known for a long time (solvents, ionizing radiation).

Sociologist Marie Ménoret goes further: “Zeneca Pharmaceutical, the world’s largest seller of anti-cancer drugs for breast cancer, thanks to its patent for Tamoxifen, is also a producer of pesticides and other deleterious products, known to be carcinogenic. »

According to a study conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund in 2015, the risk of developing breast cancer is increased by 50% among nurses. It is multiplied by 5 in hairdressers and beauticians as well as in the food industry. It is multiplied by 5 among dry cleaning and laundry workers and by 4 among workers in the paper and graphic arts industry as well as in the production of rubber and plastic products. The risk factors are multiple and can be added to each other: job stress is pointed out, night work and frequent time differences, ionizing radiation and chemical substances such as benzene, organic solvents, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides and many endocrine disruptors poorly or not at all identified by regulations.

A professional prevention for women on the cheap 

In France 2, 61% of employees report being familiar with the CHSCT ( Committee for Safety, Hygiene and Working Conditions) but 62.7% of men compared to only 59% of women. Women are therefore less well informed. Only 35% of male employees are aware of the existence of the risk assessment document, compared with 24% of female employees. This figure must be much lower when it comes to knowledge of the individual exposure form, even though it is mandatory. Worse, being a woman doubles the probability of being overlooked by occupational medicine (probably because it considers that women consult more easily in private practice). And this situation of denial makes the recognition of breast cancer as an occupational disease even more complicated – if not impossible.

“Think Breast Cancer Politically”.

The invisibility of specific risks of breast cancer for women in the workplace is a glaring demonstration of the gender inequality of occupational risk prevention policies, while millions of women in Europe, often employed in small, poorly informed and inadequately monitored workplaces, are exposed to chemicals, night shifts, ionising radiation (including in medical diagnosis) and the stress of the double day 5 , which is all the more distressing for women in single-parent families.

To paraphrase Marie Ménoret, breast cancer is definitely a political issue that feminists have totally forgotten to address. The lives of women themselves are at stake. It is urgent that the younger generations take control of it.


1/ Travailleurs de nuit : des travailleurs en rupture, HESA Mag n°5 , 1er semestre 2012, 31-35

2/ « Chausser les lunettes du genre » pour comprendre les conditions de travail, Laurent Vigel, HESA mag,N°12, 2e semestre 2015, 12-17

3/ Arrêté du 29 septembre 2006 relatif aux programmes de dépistage des cancers

4/ Ménoret M., 2006, « Prévention du cancer du sein : cachez ce politique que je ne saurais voir », Nouvelles questions féministes, 25(2), 32-47.

5)The average working week for women is 64 hours compared to 53.4% for men. The difference comes from unpaid domestic work (26.4 hours for women compared to 8.8 hours for men).

6/ Document pdf « Travail posté de nuit et cancers » par  M. Druet-Cabanac, Y. Aubert, D. Dumont, Consultation de Pathologies Professionnelles, CHU de Limoges

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