Cancer risks in the workplace
- Working in some jobs (occupations) or workplaces may mean a higher risk of some types of cancer
- In the UK, there are strict health and safety laws to control risks in the workplace
- Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees
This page looks at occupational cancer risk and some workplace cancer risks. It doesn’t cover every cancer risk in the workplace. So, if you’re concerned about something in particular, talk to your employer or visit the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website for information and advice.
You know your body best. If you’ve noticed something new or unusual for you, tell your doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, spotting it early can make a real difference.
What types of job might increase the risk of cancer?
Certain jobs may have a slightly higher risk of cancer, depending on what workers do or come into contact with. This is known as exposure. For example, exposure to asbestos, silica dust and diesel engine exhaust can increase the risk of some types of cancer. As can working in the sun.
Types of work that can have a higher risk of cancer include:
- Construction and painting.
- Agriculture, forestry and fishing.
- Manufacturing and mining.
Exposure to health hazards at work causes around approximately 4 in 100 cancer cases in the UK. But it’s important to remember that many of these cases come from past exposures to risks at higher levels, when UK health and safety rules were less developed.
Health and safety at work
Health and safety rules are designed to protect people at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety. There are rules for people working in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
UK laws mean that employers have to protect workers and prevent or lower exposure to anything that is known to cause cancer.
Asbestos and cancer risk
Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of certain cancers.
Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres and it was used in the past to insulate buildings. Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lining around the lungs), as well as cancers of the lung, voice box, and ovary.
Using asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, but some older buildings still contain it. People who refurbish or repair buildings containing asbestos, such as those working in construction or painting, could still be at risk. As well as people who worked with asbestos in the past.
Not all people who have been exposed to asbestos get cancer. It usually takes a long time (more than 20 years) for cancer to develop.
If you develop mesothelioma because of asbestos at work, you may be eligible for compensation.
What to do if you think you’re at risk from asbestos
Asbestos only becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air.
On the HSE website there is information for you and your employer on how to manage risk from asbestos, and what to do if you discover or disturb asbestos while working. If you’re worried about asbestos in your home or workplace, leave it alone, and get advice from an approved contractor from the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association.
Hazardous substances and cancer risk
Hazardous substances are chemicals, materials or other matter that may be harmful to humans. Some can increase the risk of cancer. For example, silica dust and diesel engine exhaust emissions can increase the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to silica dust or diesel engine exhaust may be higher in some workplaces, for example in the construction, mining and manufacturing industries.
In the UK, laws on the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) exist to protect workers. Employer’s must prevent or lower exposure to substances. This is done via a workplace COSHH risk assessment.
The HSE also set UK Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) for hazardous substances. There are specific limits for substances that are known to cause cancer or mutations in DNA.
Find out about how COSHH may affect you in your industry. You can talk to your employer about the measures they have taken to assess and control hazardous substances in your workplace.
Do pesticides and herbicides cause cancer?
Pesticides include weed killers (herbicides) and insect killers (insecticides). There is some evidence that people who regularly work with high levels of pesticides, such as agricultural workers or farmers, may have a small increased risk of some types of cancer.
However, there aren’t enough high-quality studies to be certain of a link between pesticides and cancer, so we need more research.
Protect your skin when working in the sun
Too much UV radiation from the sun can damage the DNA in skin cells and cause skin cancer. If you’re working outside, it’s important to protect your skin and work in the sun safely.
The sun is often strong enough in the UK to damage your skin, even when it’s cloudy. In the UK, the sun can be strongest from mid-March to mid-October, between 11am and 3pm.
Protect your skin by:
- Spending time in the shade when you can, and during your breaks.
- Covering up with clothes, a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face and neck and UV protection sunglasses.
- Using sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and 4 or 5 stars on body parts not covered by clothing. Use it generously and reapply often.
If you do get sunburnt whilst working, talk to your employer about how to manage this risk in the future.
Find out more about staying safe in the sun.
Does night shift work cause cancer?
The evidence for a link between night shift work and cancer is unclear. Some studies suggest an increased risk of cancer while others do not. If there is an increased risk, it is likely to be small. But we need more quality research to know for sure whether or not night shift work affects the risk of cancer.
We know that working a shift pattern can make it more difficult to maintain healthy habits that lower the risk of cancer. Not smoking and keeping a healthy weight can help lower cancer risk.
- Brown KF, Rumgay H, Dunlop C, Ryan M, Quartly F, Cox A, Deas A, Elliss-Brookes L, Gavin A, Hounsome L, Huws D, Ormiston-Smith N, Shelton J, White C, Parkin DM. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br J Cancer. 2018;118(8):1130-1141.
- Jones ME, Schoemaker MJ, McFadden EC, Wright LB, Johns LE, Swerdlow AJ. Night shift work and risk of breast cancer in women: the Generations Study cohort. Br J Cancer. 2019;121(2):172-179.
- Health and Safety Executive. https://www.hse.gov.uk/. (Accessed 29 March 2023)