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Occupational cancers

Occupational cancers

Guidance for health & safety reps aiming to prevent cancer.

Help for you if you are affected by cancer. 

What do we know about work-related cancers? 

  • The leading cause of death is occupational exposure to asbestos
  • Most new cases are lung cancer, breast cancer or skin cancer
  • Over 5000 cases estimated each year from the construction industry
  • Other causes of occupational cancer are shift-work, solar radiation, mineral oils and silica
  • Three times more men than women die from occupational cancer
  • The most common forms of cancer leading to death are lung cancer and mesothelioma.

"No time to lose" IOSH campaign

Get involved in the Insitute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) campaign to improve the understanding of carcinogenic exposures and help organisations take action. The campaign seeks to:

  • raise awareness of a significant health risk to workers 
  • offer solutions to tackle the problem 
  • provide FREE materials to help deliver effective prevention.

Guidance for Reps?

Try to persuade your employer to get involved in the IOSH campaign.

Further guidance available:

Preventing exposure to carcinogens

Around 300,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK every year, and every year more than 150,000 people die from the disease1.

Estimates of how many are caused through work vary considerably. The HSE has estimated there are around 13,500 new cases of cancer caused by work every year, with over 8,000 deaths2. This is likely to be an underestimate of the real number because there are many links between work and cancer that are still only suspected but not yet proven. The HSE figures only list those where there is a proven or probable link.

Another reason for the lack of accurate figures on workplace cancers is that it is almost always impossible to state accurately that an individual cancer is caused by exposure to a specific chemical or virus or type of radiation. Even if the link can be shown, such as the link between skin cancer and excessive sun exposure, proving the cause is occupational is again very difficult as the worker could also be exposed to the sun on holiday. The figures also do not include deaths from cancer caused by alcohol and tobacco in people who drink or smoke because of work pressures.

The TUC estimates that the true level is likely to be well over 20,000 cases a year with 15,000-18,000 deaths. However, what is important is not whether the number of deaths is 8,000 or 18,000, but that all occupational cancers are avoidable.

We do know that it is estimated that 23% of workers in Europe are exposed to some kind of carcinogen on a regular basis and the figure in the UK is likely to be the same3.

The law

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations require employers to make a suitable risk assessment of the risks to the health of the workforce. That includes the risks from cancer-causing hazards.

This law also states employers must identify and then introduce the preventative and protective measures needed to improve workplace health and safety. The regulations are quite clear that the first aim should always be to remove the hazard. Unfortunately employers often forget this and see their role as controlling hazards through things like issuing workers with protective equipment.

However the law is clear: employers should always attempt to remove carcinogens from the workplace.

There are also legally enforceable limits to the levels of exposure to many substances, including most known carcinogens. These exposure limits, called “Workplace Exposure Limits” are the absolute maximum level to which workers can be exposed. However it should be borne in mind that even with these maximums there is still a legal responsibility on employers to reduce levels “as far as is reasonably practicable”. Unfortunately many employers see Workplace Exposure Limits as the level up to which it is safe to expose people. This is not the case as there is no safe exposure limit for any carcinogen and even levels well below the Workplace Exposure Limits can lead to some workers developing cancer.

That is why trade unions believe that the aim should be to remove all exposure to any known or suspected carcinogen in the workplace. We should not accept levels which will continue to lead to workers developing avoidable cancers just because either the European Commission or HSE has decided that this level is “acceptable”. Trade unions want an end to the use of carcinogens in the workplace through changing processes, substituting for other substances or, where that is not possible, ensuring that levels be reduced as low as possible and workers fully protected from any contact with a cancer causing agent.

The goal should be that no worker should be exposed to anything that causes cancer. Where possible that should mean removing carcinogens from the workplace completely and most carcinogens can be substituted for less harmful substances. In some cases that is not practical, but in these cases the worker should be fully protected from exposure. Examples of where a cancer causing agent cannot be removed, but exposure by a worker to any risk can be removed are radiographers and radiation, quarry workers to silica and bus mechanics to diesel exhaust.

There is a legal requirement on any employer only to use a carcinogen if there is no reasonable alternative. In practice this often means that they will continue to use a cancer causing agent if the alternative is more expensive. They will also often not consider alternatives if the exposure levels are below their legal maximum. In fact, regardless of whether there is a cheaper substitute or they are still within the legal maximum, there is still a legal requirement on the employer to remove or reduce exposure “as far as is reasonable practical”.

New substances

Often a substance is only found to cause cancer many years after it is introduced. By then many thousands of workers could have been exposed. Trade unions support the “precautionary principle” which means that if there is a reasonable possibility that a substance may cause harm then there should be a presumption that it will and therefore should be controlled. 

Work cancer in the news

May 2016

The European Commission is proposing changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (2004/37/EC) to limit exposure to 13 cancer-causing chemicals at the workplace, including 'respirable crystalline silica' (RCS).

Cancer is estimated to account for more than half of work-related deaths in the EU, totalling around 102,000 deaths per year.

A roadmap for action on workplace carcinogens was agreed by six European partners on 25 May 2016.

Where can I find out more?

I'm affected by cancer. Is help available?

...or speak to your Prospect representative. Tell them about this guidance in case they're not aware. It will help them help you.

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If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan. 

Policy developments


1  Cancer research UK 

2  HSE cancer statistics 

3 Occupational exposure to carcinogens in the European Union, Kauppinen etal. Occup Environ Med,v.57(1); Jan 2000