Occupational cancer – minimising the risks

Photo by Pulmonary Pathology under Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr

Photo by Pulmonary Pathology under Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr

4 February 2004 was World Cancer Day, which forms part of the wider campaign to significantly reduce premature deaths from cancer and improve the quality of life for cancer sufferers and cancer survival rates.

According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures (from August 2012) occupational ill-health accounted for over 20 million working days lost and an estimated 12, 000 deaths per year. Occupational cancer caused by exposure to carcinogens in the workplace is a major component of occupational ill health. It causes approximately 8,000 deaths and a further 14,000 cancer registrations annually, and is a major drain on the UK economy.

Unlike workplace accidents, which are easy to link directly to an incident in the workplace, it can often take several decades for cancer to develop following exposure to carcinogens making it difficult to associate cancer with work in many cases, especially if people have changed jobs or retired by the time the cancer is diagnosed.

Employers need to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible, perhaps by substituting dangerous materials, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), or carrying out health surveillance to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment). This is often considered on a case-by-case basis according to the level of exposure, and depends on whether there is screening available. It is helpful to keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

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