Efforts to prevent exposure to carcinogens at work remain lacking despite enormous suffering, according to a leading U.K. health and safety expert.
“It is utter nonsense for people to claim workplaces are healthier today,” says Hugh Robertson, senior policy officer for health and safety, U.K. Trades Union Congress (TUC). “Exposures now are different, not less.”
Robertson recently hosted a TUC educational webinar, entitled What causes workplace cancer?
, offering insight into the leading causes of work-related cancer in the United Kingdom, significant under-reporting and under-recognition, and what he describes as a lack of will to implement prevention solutions. This webinar draws upon a wealth of information from a TUC report, entitled Occupational Cancer: A workplace guide
According to the TUC, 80 per cent of all work-related cancer is caused by six carcinogens—asbestos, shift work, mineral oils, solar radiation, silica and diesel exhaust. Similar to the Canadian experience, cancer caused by asbestos remains the single largest killer of U.K. workers.
All told, the U.K. government says there are 13,500 new cancer cases annually caused by exposures at work along with 8,000 worker deaths. Though alarming, the TUC believes the true number of new cancer cases to be in excess of 20,000 each year and the deaths certainly higher than government estimates (under-reporting/recognition is a significant problem in Canada
Robertson offers insight into each of the six deadly carcinogens and how workers continue to be exposed. He explains how a growing reliance on a 24/7 economy is driving the risk associated with shift work, for instance. He suggests 2,000 women develop breast cancer annually because of shift work, while 500 succumb to the disease.
Also discussed are industries and exposures that are relatively new and may add to the cancer burden moving forward. Recycling, for instance, has seen significant growth with exposures to heavy metals, dust and spores. Also touched upon is the ongoing uptake of nanotechnology in many industries and a growing body of research linking it with cancer and other health impacts.
Here in Canada, workers continue to develop cancer from exposure to many of these same carcinogens. According to preliminary findings of a ground-breaking study entitled Burden of Occupational Cancer in Canada
, asbestos is responsible for almost 2,100 work-related cancers while diesel exhaust causes more than 550. The full report, authored by Ontario’s Occupational Cancer Research Centre
(OCRC), is expected to be released later this year.
Prevention...the only sure cure
“What we are looking at today is a snapshot of what happened 40 years ago (with asbestos) and if we don’t take action now on these occupational carcinogens we are likely to see similar tragic outcomes,” says Robertson.
Though, he warns, cancer prevention efforts must not focus solely on meeting allowable workplace exposure levels. Robertson is not alone in his belief these allowable exposures simply “perpetuate this myth that there is a safe limit for a carcinogen. There is no safe limit. No one should be exposed to carcinogens in the workplace.”
Prevention and exposure control solutions for most of the carcinogens mentioned in the webinar are explored. Though, in general, the advice and warning offered by Robertson is “Where there is a substitute for something that is a carcinogen we should be always using it.”
WHSC training and resources can help
For our part, the Workers Health and Safety Centre (WHSC) has written extensively on the issue of cancer prevention and the many resources available to help workplaces looking to embrace a more proactive approach to protecting the health of workers including substitution. For instance, the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) has designed as a single access point to the many chemical substitution tools
available on the internet.
The WHSC also offers a number of training programs
to help workplaces better understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards, including carcinogens and other toxic substances. Many of these same programs offer essential insight into the tools and information needed to identify and control, eliminate or substitute harmful workplace toxins.
The WHSC Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training
is one such program and has been updated to reflect legal changes to the way hazardous product information is delivered to workers, including new training obligations implemented in 2016.
To learn more about WHSC training:
Call: 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a training services representative
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