With World Cancer Day having only recently passed, we decided to take a look at cancer risks in the workplace and how to avoid them.

The statistics

Cancer is one of the planet’s most significant health problems. Over 2.5 million people in the UK alone live with one form of it, and more than 165,000 people sadly pass away from the disease each year.

While not all forms of cancer can be attributed to a particular source, some can be directly linked to workplace exposure. In fact, occupational cancer accounts for around 14,000 (or 3.81%) of the UK’s estimated 367,000 cases a year – and a higher share of cancer-related deaths, at 8,000 (4.85%).

From our perspective, what makes these stats so troubling is that with the proper protection, the vast majority of those 8,000 deaths could be avoided.

Cancer risks in the workplace and how to avoid them

To investigate what can be done, it’s important to first understand what causes workplace-related cancers, and the kinds of roles where workers are more susceptible.

Cancer Risks in the Workplace

Occupational cancer is caused by workers being exposed to carcinogens. These can come in many forms, from solids to liquids, vapours and gases. Exposure can happen when workers breathe them in, swallow them, or come into physical contact with them.

Because of this, some jobs carry a significantly higher risk of workplace cancer than others. The list is quite varied, ranging from what you might see as the more expected industry-heavy roles like manufacturing and construction, to rural roles in agriculture and forestry, and chemical-heavy service jobs like dental practices, medical surgeries, and nail salons.

That’s just a small sample of sectors where carcinogens are a concern. A quick look at the many industries we serve gives a fuller picture.

But regardless of sector, the fact that workplace-caused cancers often don’t develop for years from the point of exposure – sometimes a decade or more – makes proper protective measures all the more important.

Toxic fumes warning sign

How to avoid occupational cancer

Carcinogen exposure in the workplace can happen in many ways, but often occurs for one of a small number of reasons:

  • Inadequate employer-provided personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Improperly-worn PPE due to worker error or insubstantial training
  • A lack of suitable, industry-regulated dust or fume extraction solutions.

Alleviating cancer risks in the workplace therefore means employers, particularly those in at-risk industries, need to become familiar with the safety regulations for their industry, and make sure they’re observed at all times.

While both Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and Public Health England (PHE) offer a wide variety of guidance on these, there are two specific regulations we frequently point employers towards:

  • COSHH: The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations is the law that outlines precisely how employers should control hazardous substances. It includes the carcinogens to watch out for, and the specific measures you should take to protect employees from them.
  • Health and Safety at Work: The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 sets out general duties employers have towards employees and members of the public. It also covers responsibilities employees have towards each other, and the accountabilities self-employed workers should take towards themselves and their customers.

Other occupational cancer risks and how to prevent them

Amongst the many carcinogens that can cause occupational cancer, there are two outliers worth covering in particular:

  • Asbestos: While banned in the UK since 1999, asbestos is nonetheless still present in some old buildings and is a going concern when it comes to cancer risks in the workplace. Areas marked as asbestos risks are best off avoided altogether. If they can’t be (for instance, if removing it as part of construction work), make sure to wear adequate PPE. If you suspect your building has asbestos that needs removing, contact the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association.
  • The sun: Some cases of workplace-caused cancer can be attributed to working outdoors in summer without adequate skin protection. While employers are not legally obliged to, simply providing high-SPF sun cream to your employees could go a long way to alleviating that worry.

Are you doing everything to protect your employees?

At VODEX, our COSHH-compliant fume and dust extraction systems are designed to protect people from many of the airborne carcinogens that create cancer risks in the workplace. Use our Industry dropdown menu to see our products in your sector, or get in touch to find out how we can help you meet HSE standards.

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