World Congress Bars German Asbestos Victims 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



It would seem logical for key stakeholders in German occupational health and safety to be welcomed at an event intended to provide a “platform for the exchange of information and views to experts in occupational safety and health (OSH), representatives of enterprises and workers (the social partners), decision-makers in governments and public authorities, and anyone else active in the area of OSH.”1 Such an event is now taking place in Frankfurt. It is the XX World Congress for Safety and Health at Work. Although, one would expect the groups backing this important meeting – the German Social Accident Insurance, the International Social Security Association and the International Labor Organization – to favor a policy of inclusion, it has not proved to be the case, as representatives of the German Federal Association of Asbestos Victims’ Groups (Asbestose Selbsthilfegruppe) have discovered. Despite multiple attempts to engage with the organizers over several months, no provision has been made for the voice of Germany’s asbestos victims to be heard.

This marginalization comes as no surprise to key German activists who explained that the German hosts of the XX World Congress for Safety and Health at Work are the Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung (German Social Accident Insurance Institution/DGUV); the DGUV is the organization in charge of the Berufsgenossenschaften (the German Employer's Liability Insurance Agency), a body which has continually and aggressively blocked legitimate compensation claims by German asbestos victims.2 Key German statistics reveal the huge injustice experienced by the injured between 2002 and 2011:

  • 33,499 claims for asbestos-related lung cancer and 13,100 claims for mesothelioma were made as occupationally-caused diseases but only 7,340 (22%) of the former and 8,674 (67%) of the latter were accepted;
  • using a ratio of 2 cases of asbestos-related lung cancer per mesothelioma, the total number of lung cancer cases which should have been accepted was 17,348 as opposed to the 7,340 which were recognized;
  • more than 16,000 people died of asbestos-related diseases in this period.

A press release issued by the German Federal Association of Asbestos Victims’ Groups on the day the Congress began (August 24, 2014) highlighted the “incomprehensible attitude towards asbestos victims in Germany” which their exclusion from the event intimated. The victims speculated that the reason they were barred from participating was the likelihood that by communicating their plight an inconvenient secret would be revealed: the existence of a class of workers deprived of their human and legal rights by German officialdom. The unwelcome revelation of the harsh reality endured by the victims at an event hosted by the DGUV was clearly not something the organizers were prepared to tolerate: “A session concerning the social situation and problems of German asbestos victims was obviously not desired” the victims concluded.

In stark contrast to what is taking place in Frankfurt, in February this year a symposium was held by asbestos victims at the annual German Cancer Congress. Speaking about the significance of that event, Dr. Evelyn Glensk said:

“for the first time, the faces of the victims could be seen at this annual gathering of German medical experts. The victims are the physical manifestation of an invisible and deadly phenomenon: the German epidemic of asbestos-related diseases. The Government's continued failure to address their needs, recognize their human rights and adequately supervise the administration of the insurance scheme has perpetuated a situation whereby innocent people lost their health and their lives for simply going to work.”

As a result of discussions which took place at the German Cancer Congress in February 2014, the Declaration of Berlin, which urged the Federal Government to recognize and compensate asbestos victims for their injuries, was approved by organizations representing civil society in Germany and abroad.3 Although, the Declaration has now been signed by all sixteen regional German Cancer Societies, the national board of the German Cancer Society has refused to do so (see: Victims’ Association press release). There is little doubt that this position has been adopted to comply with the dictates of the Berufsgenossenschaften; sadly, it seems that the bravery required to support victims and jeopardize careers and financial budgets by going against the Berufsgenossenschaften is lacking.

An open letter sent on August 8, 2014 to Prof. Dr. Wolff Schiegel, President of the Cancer Society, by the German Federal Association of Asbestos Victims’ Groups, is categorical:

“Contrary to our expectations, the German Cancer Society bases its position on the opinion of a statutory insurance institution… According to its commitment, the German Cancer Society is a health political institution exerting influence on the welfare of cancer patients by committees consisting of politicians, expert societies and providers of healthcare products and services. In our opinion, the position of the German Cancer Society does not come up to this principle.”

Germany’s asbestos victims have been doubly abused; first by their employers and now by a national institution and agency with agendas which prioritize corporate budgets over individuals’ rights. That so many victims have been refused compensation is a scandal. The fact that they have also been denied the opportunity of engaging with international experts and labor representatives at the XX World Congress for Safety and Health at Work perpetuates this injustice.

August 25, 2014


1 XX World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2014. This meeting is being held from August 23-26, 2014.

2 Kazan-Allen L. Support for Asbestos Victims in Germany. March 4, 2014.

3 The Declaration of Berlin. February 2014.



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