Each year there are more than 700,000 deaths from work-related cancers around the world, mostly lung cancers and other respiratory tumours. The main causes are asbestos, dust containing crystalline silica, diesel engine exhaust particulate, and a number of other hazardous agents. The main employment sectors impacted are construction and manufacturing although in developed countries these hazardous exposures are decreasing over time because of stricter laws and better control of work processes. So what is occupational cancer, what are the main types and how can we reduce the risk?

Asbestos and cancer risk

Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of certain cancers. Asbestos was used in the past to insulate buildings and it’s made up of tiny fibres and breathing these in can cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lining around the lungs), as well as cancers of the lung, voice box, and ovary. All types of asbestos can cause cancer, but brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite) are more dangerous than white asbestos (chrysotile). This is because brown and blue asbestos fibres are short and sharp, and much harder for our bodies to break down.

Using asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, but some older buildings still contain it. And people who worked with asbestos in the past or who refurbish or repair structures containing asbestos could still be at risk.

Protecting your skin and working in the sun safely

Whether you’re working on a construction site or landscaping a garden, it’s important to protect your skin when the sun is strong. In the UK, the sun can be strongest from early April to late September, between 11am and 3pm.  When the sun is strong:

  • Spend time in the shade if you can.
  • Cover up with a hat that shades your face and neck as well as a long-sleeved top and sunglasses.
  • Use sunscreen with at least SPF15 and 4 or 5 stars on parts not covered by clothing. Use it generously and reapply often.
  • If you do get sunburnt, talk to your employer about how to avoid this at work in future.

Diesel fumes

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of WHO, compared the risks from diesel fumes to those from passive smoking, and estimated that people regularly exposed to diesel fumes at work are about 40 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer. It concluded that the exhausts were definitely a cause of lung cancer and may also cause tumours in the bladder and it based the findings on research in high-risk workers such as miners, railway workers and truck drivers.  Diesel exhausts are now in the same group as carcinogens ranging from wood chippings to plutonium and sunlight to alcohol.

Risk management programme

Control of carcinogens should sit with your risk management process. There are several ways of conduction risk assessments, but it’s essential that the process you use identifies the risks and those who might be harmed and that control measures are put in place to reduce the risk of harm. The HSE provides a template model in its five steps to risk assessment:

  • Identify the hazards
  • Decide who might be harmed and how
  • Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions
  • Record your findings and implement them
  • Review your assessment and update if necessary

It is estimated that the annual burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain exceeds £2 billion. If you add the cost of the care of the sick, lost wages and welfare payments, this can add hundreds of millions more to the bill. Most occupational cancers are preventable and therefore the debate with regards to it is whether trying to control it is sufficient, or whether elimination is the only way to save thousands of lives and reduce the burden on overstretched resources in the UK.

For further information on occupational cancers and how we can assist, please contact us here.