Many people die from cancers which have developed from their work related activities. Often the cause for these cancers are unknown to the people themselves. This has been shown from epidemiological studies which show that people working in specific jobs with known carcinogens are likely to have a higher risk of developing certain cancers when compared to the general public.


And this higher cancer rate is not due to differences in lifestyle such as smoking either. The facts point to certain jobs carry higher risks of developing cancers. These studies have been conducted in the US, UK, Europe, Australia, and even New Zealand.


So what is it about certain jobs that increase the risk of developing cancers?


It is all to do with someone’s exposure to carcinogens. A carcinogen is a substance or agent that causes cancer in humans. Carcinogens can also be substance that are suspected to cause cancers in humans, but there is only enough substantial evidence in animals so far.These carcinogenic agents are periodically reviewed in the light of any new evidence. One of the professional bodies that reviews them is the World Health Organization. The world health organisations puts different carcinogens into four groups. These are;

  • Group 1 Substances that are Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A Substances that are probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B Substances that are possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3 Substances that cannot be classified
  • Group 4 Substances that are not carcinogenic.

If you don’t know much about the cancer staging system you should check out Cancer Stating- How does it work?


Carcinogens found in the Workplace


There are currently 113 substances that have been classed as a carcinogen to us humans. Of these 131 substances, as many as 50 are found in workplaces all around the world. Most commonly are asbestos, chromium compounds, diesel engine exhaust fumes, formaldehydes, silica crystals, and wood dust.


Now if you think you’re safe because none of these substances are present in your workplace, remember this is not a complete list of all 50. And one of the substances on the list affects nearly every work space- Solar radiation- unless you work underground.


These 50 substances are substances that there is sufficient evidence to prove that they are carcinogenic. There are an additional 100 more substances that are possibly or probably carcinogenic. This means that more evidence is needed to confirm whether they are or are not.


These include certain types of solvents and fumes, such as welding fumes. And even shift work has been linked to being possibly carcinogenic.


Studies of the possible carcinogenic substances is always ongoing- so the risk of these substances is always changing every few years.


Which Jobs are the Worst


The amount of possible carcinogenic substances that you are exposed to is not the same for every job. In Fact it is typical of manual labor


jobs to have the largest proportion of carcinogenic substance exposures. This includes construction, agriculture, product manufacture, paper and wood plants, machinery and equipment manufacturers.


Although it is not all labor jobs, people in the medical industry are also exposed to possible carcinogenic substances.


The common perception of the industry you work in may not reflect the risk posed by carcinogenic substances. For instances, working in the agricultural industry is typically associated with working outdoors away from cities and therefor in the fresh air. This is typically thought of as healthy. This is not always entirely true due to the amount of chemical sprays being used, as well as the constant exposure to solar radiation.


The construction industry might be one of the worst major industry. It is common to be exposed to solar radiation and diesel engine exhausts. As well as silica, and in some cases asbestos. Although this is not commonly being used as a building material, it is often involved in demolition jobs in the construction industry.


The third largest industry exposed to high amount of carcinogenic substances is possibly the health sector. Substances such as sterilizing agents and being exposed to compounds during the preparation of drugs and handling treated patients and their laundry for patients being treated with anticancer drugs.


Health workers are also exposed to occupational x-ray radiation from radiology and radiotherapy. Then there is the shift work that is involved in healthcare. Shift work that disrupts your circadian rhythm has been classified as a possible carcinogen since 2010.


Exposure to workplace Carcinogens is higher that you would expect


Reducing Exposure


The above industries shows us that exposure to carcinogens remains common in the workplace. There is scope to reduce this exposure for many workers around the world. However a number of factors remain in place which limit this reduction.


For one, there is a lack of awareness of which common substances in a workplace are carcinogenic. Such as wood dust, it is not often regarded as a carcinogenic substance. As such, workers often ignore safety precautions such as dust masks. Another is silica dust, which is basically the dust created when cutting concrete, bricks, and clay materials. There has been significant evidence of the risk of both wood dust and silica dust since the mid 1990’s. Yet many workers are not aware of their risks when exposed to these substances.


Secondly, the lack of awareness of the presence of these carcinogenic agents is also prevalent. Take a well known carcinogen, asbestos. This is well known to everyone as being a carcinogen, yet there are many products made of it not recognize by demolition workers, after all they were not the ones installing it.


Thirdly, there is a lack of recognition on how high these exposures are and whether they exceed exposure standards. Wood and silica dust are clearly visible for workers, yet at what level of exposure do workers need to take extra precautions.

Monitoring Workplace exposures


It is normal in the health and nuclear sector to monitor workers who are exposed to the carcinogenic risk of x-rays. This is so that radiation workers can monitor the exposure received and continually optimize procedures and process to minimize the radiation doses received by workers.


Yet in other industries the exposure of workers to carcinogenic substances is not often monitors. Monitoring exposure, where exposure to the carcinogen cannot be removed, is needed to continuously improved control methods and safety procedures. This is true for construction where wood dust and silica dust cannot be removed, the only improvements that can be made are in controlling it. And without monitoring the exposure, there is no way of knowing if the control methods are being effective.


Informing workers of their Risks


Workers in many industries remain exposed to carcinogenic substances, often without them being aware. It is a common believe that carcinogenic substances have to be “chemicals”, but they are not limited to this. They come in a wide variety of substances, from chemicals, construction dusts, and UV radiation to name a few.


There is a significant health benefit in reducing these exposures for workers. The benefit is not only received by the individual themselves, but a country’s health system and economy benefits from a lower occupational cancer rate.


Often all it takes is to inform workers of their exposure to these substances and they will gather together to implement measures to reduce their own risk. But if they don’t know about the carcinogens they can’t protect themselves.