Workers Health & Safety Centre

Promising pilot study confirms new method to track occupational cancers

Ontario’s Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) recently reported on a promising new method to help assess and monitor factors that give rise to occupational cancer.
This method was the subject of a pilot study entitled, “Exploring a new model for occupational cancer surveillance” and led by OCRC director Dr. Paul Demers.  According to Demers his results show that lung cancer was the most prevalent work-related cancer; while workers in mining and quarrying were found to have the highest risk of lung cancer.
These findings are not so surprising, as miners are exposed to a host of known occupational carcinogens including silica, radon, and diesel exhaust. However, Demers says his research team found something they did not expect to see. Women in blue collar industries do not have as high a rate of breast cancer as those in white collar industries. This finding will take further investigation, but without studies like this researchers would not be looking.
Dr. Demers presented these findings at an Institute for Work and Health (IWH) plenary earlier this month. IWH explains the thinking behind the pilot as follows, “There are about 60 well-established workplace carcinogens, and still more to-be-identified occupational carcinogens. Yet Canada still lacks a rapid, systematic means to assess increased cancer risk associated with occupational exposures. Although Canada collects timely and high quality information on every new cancer that is diagnosed through provincial and national registries, occupational cancer surveillance data has been limited by the lack of information on industry and occupation.”
To help address this situation the research pilot linked Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) lost-time claims data with data found in the Ontario Cancer Registry (OCR). Demers explained a similar model was previously used in Alberta to track asthma, but no one had attempted it for cancer. Regardless, he concluded, the results of the pilot study show that this system of cancer surveillance is both feasible and useful.
For the pilot WSIB allowed Demers and his team to take a 20 per cent random sample of the lost-time claim records for Ontario from 1975 to 2011. This included information such as: date of claim, nature of claim, job title, occupation and industry. The researchers then linked this information with data from the Ontario Cancer Registry from 1964 to 2012 which included: type of cancer, and date of diagnosis. The WSIB/OCR linkage produced a group including 69,673 workers with 83, 463 cancer cases. Of these 11, 384 cases were lung cancers.
In future, Demers hopes to apply to the WSIB for access to 100 per cent of their lost-time claims data which is approximately five million claims and four million workers. He will also consider linking additional databases including the Ontario death file (mortality), OHIP registration file and hospital discharge file, with the Ontario Cancer Registry. This could result in an even more definitive picture of occupational cancer in Ontario.
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