Harmful substances and cancer - chemicals in the workplace
People who work in certain jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry, may have higher risks of cancer because of exposures to some chemicals, radiation, or other aspects of their work.
Scientists estimate that occupational exposure to cancer-causing chemicals is responsible for nearly 4% of cancer cases in the UK.
It is important to remember that this usually affects only a small number of people in very specific jobs, and these exposures are less of a problem now in the UK. This is because the most dangerous chemicals have been banned for several decades, and employers are now legally required to prevent and control exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer.
But cancer can take many years, or even decades, to develop. So some people may have an increased risk of cancer because they used to work with cancer-causing substances before regulations came into force.
On this page you can find out about some workplace cancer risks, and how to reduce them.
Dangerous chemicals still in use are heavily regulated, and have strict guidelines about how they are used, to keep people’s exposure within safety limits.
Health and safety rules are designed to protect people working with hazardous substances at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Public Health England (PHE) can provide more information about this.
Certain industrial chemicals can increase the risk of developing cancer. Legally, these chemicals must carry hazard warnings and their use is strictly controlled. The HSE issues guidelines to protect people working with such chemicals.
The HSE also provides guidance about certain working conditions, such as exposure to ionising radiation , working outdoors, or shift-work , that have been linked to cancer.
Health and safety regulations can help to reduce the risk of cancer, and protect workers from exposures that may harm their health. But even people who have had some of these workplace exposures can do a lot to reduce the risk of cancer through living a healthy life.
Types of work that carry a higher risk and some examples of working conditions that may increase the risk include:
- Agriculture, forestry and fishing – including too much sun exposure, or chemicals like pesticides.
- Construction and painting – including asbestos, too much sun exposure, silica, diesel engine exhaust, coal products, paint and solvents, or wood dust.
- Manufacturing and mining industries – including exposure to fossil fuels and their by-products (such as mineral oils, coal products, benzene, diesel engine exhaust), asbestos, silica, solvents, radon, or too much sun exposure.
- Service industries – some types of jobs in this industry that could lead to a higher risk include: roles with outdoor or shift work , household or vehicle repair technicians, or transport (drivers or flight personnel). The types of risks in this industry include too much sun exposure, second-hand smoke , shift work, diesel engine exhaust, or radon.
Asbestos is a natural resource that was used in the past to insulate buildings. It is made up of tiny fibres and breathing these in can cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs), as well as cancers of the lung, voice box , and ovary .
There are three types of asbestos. Amosite (‘brown asbestos’) and crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’) are made of short, sharp fibres that our bodies find difficult to break down. Chrysotile (‘white asbestos’) is not completely safe, but is less dangerous than the other two types. Its fibres are long, soft, and easily broken down in the body.
All asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, so modern products should be asbestos-free and there are strict regulations about work that may involve asbestos exposure .
Asbestos only becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air as a result of work or physical damage. Workers who were involved in refurbishing or repairing structures containing asbestos are therefore most at risk.
What to do about asbestos
It usually takes a long time (between 15 and 40 years) for people to develop cancer after they have been exposed to asbestos. This is why mesothelioma is becoming more common now, because asbestos was used heavily in industry after World War II. If you develop mesothelioma through asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for compensation.
If you are concerned about the presence of asbestos-containing materials, it is important to get advice from an approved contractor. You can find one by contacting the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association. In the meantime, leave the asbestos untouched to avoid releasing any fibres.
Ionising radiation is a term for the high-energy emissions that are released by radioactive materials. It can come from natural sources such as radon gas. It can also be produced artificially and is used in medicine (e.g. X-ray machines) and in industry (for measurement and producing electricity).
Exposure to high levels of this type of radiation can cause cancers, especially leukaemias (cancers of the blood). In the UK, Public Health England monitors and provides information about our exposure levels to ionising radiation.
Employees in the nuclear industry or medical and dental professions may work with sources of radiation. If you fall into this group, then following your employer’s safety guidelines will help you to minimise your exposure.
Radiation from sunlight, power lines, electrical equipment and mobile phones has much less energy than radiation from X-ray machines or radon. This type of radiation is known as non-ionising radiation. But UV radiation from sunlight can result in damage to the skin that can lead to skin cancer.
If you work outdoors for some or all of your working day, your skin may be regularly exposed to the damaging effects of the sun over a long period of time. So it’s important for fair-skinned outdoor workers to take steps to protect themselves.
If you work indoors then you still need to think about sun protection during your lunch break over the summer months. Enjoy the sun safely by using shade, clothes and at least SPF15 sunscreen.
Employers' legal obligations
Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees according to the:
- Health and Safety at Work Act (1974)
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999)
There is information about employers' legal obligations on the Health and Safety Executive website.
Tips for protecting yourself
Over the summer months, employees can help reduce their UV exposure by following these tips:
- Spend time in the shade where possible between 11 and 3
- Spend your breaks in a shady spot
- Choose a protective hat that shades your face, neck, ears and head
- Wear a top that covers your shoulders and arms, and keep it on throughout the day
- Wear sunglasses where possible to protect your eyes
- Apply at least SPF 15 sunscreen before you start work. Reapply regularly and generously.
- Use a sunscreen for sports or with a low oil content if you are doing strenuous activity.
If you do get sunburnt, tell your employer and discuss what improvements could be made.
Shift work and cancer
Some studies have raised concerns that working in shifts or being exposed to light at night could increase the risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer. Scientists are trying to confirm if this link is real, and for now, the evidence is not completely certain.
In 2007, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) concluded that working night-shifts probably increases the risk of cancer. This means that there is some evidence that shift-working could affect the risk of cancer, but that more research is needed to say for sure.
This area of research is complicated, but some of our blog posts explain why there aren’t yet definite answers , and some things to watch out for when reading about new research published about this topic . The HSE is looking into this in detail at the moment, and they are due to publish their assessment of the health risks of shift work in December 2015.
For now, our advice to female shift workers is the same as for all other women:
- help reduce the risk of breast cancer by cutting down on alcohol, being active, and keeping a healthy weight
- be breast aware
- see your GP if you notice any unusual changes to your breasts
- keep an eye out for breast screening invitations when you’re in your fifties and sixties.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team