Cancer risks in the workplace
People who work in certain jobs may have higher risks of cancer because of exposures to some dusts, gases chemicals, radioactive substances, or other aspects of their work.
Scientists estimate that exposure to health hazards at work causes 4% of cancer cases in the UK. But it’s important to remember that this usually affects only a small number of people in very specific jobs. These exposures are much less of a problem in the UK now, because the most dangerous chemicals have been banned for many years, and employers are now legally required to prevent and control exposure to chemicals and other health hazards 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.
What types of jobs might put me at risk?
Certain types of work can carry a higher risk, depending on the exposures people have in their individual jobs. This may include:
- Agriculture, forestry and fishing – too much sun or exposure to some agricultural chemicals could increase risk.
- Construction and painting – exposure to asbestos, too much sun, silica, diesel engine exhaust, coal products, paint and solvents, or wood dust can increase risk.
- Manufacturing and mining industries – exposure to fossil fuels (such as mineral oils, coal products, benzene, and diesel engine exhaust), asbestos, silica, solvents, or too much sun exposure can increase risk.
- Service industries – too much sun exposure, second-hand smoke or diesel engine exhaust can increase risk.
Certain chemicals or exposures can increase the risk of developing cancer. Legally, these chemicals must carry hazard warnings and their use is strictly controlled. Where these chemicals are still in use, they are heavily regulated to keep workers’ exposure within safety limits.
Employers also have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees according to the ‘Health and Safety at Work Act (1974)’ and the ‘Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999)’.
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.
The HSE issues guidelines to protect people working with dangerous chemicals, and also provides guidance about work that has been linked to cancer, such as being exposed to ionising radiation or working outdoors.
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 around the lungs), as well as cancers of the lung, voice box, and ovary.
There are three types of asbestos. Although all three types can affect our health, Amosite (‘brown asbestos’) and Crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’) are more dangerous than Chrysotile (‘white asbestos’). This is because brown and blue asbestos fibres are short and sharp, and much harder for our bodies to break down.
Although all asbestos use has been banned in the UK since 1999, people who used to work with asbestos in the past or who refurbish or repair structures containing asbestos could be at risk.
What to do about asbestos
It usually takes a long time (more than 20 years on average) for people to develop cancer after they have been exposed to asbestos.
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. Asbestos only becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air, so leave asbestos untouched to avoid releasing any fibres.
If you work outdoors during your working day, you may be exposed to too much sun. It’s important for outdoor workers to take appropriate steps to protect themselves.
Tips for protecting yourself
Over the summer months when the sun is strong, outdoor workers can help reduce their UV exposure by:
- Spending time in the shade, especially between 11am and 3pm
- Covering up with clothes; wear a protective hat that covers your face and neck as well as a long sleeved top and sunglasses
- Using a sunscreen that’s at least SPF15, and reapplying it regularly and generously. If your work is strenuous your sunscreen might be washed, wiped or sweated off more easily. Try a sunscreen with a low oil content and reapply regularly.
If you do get sunburnt, tell your employer and discuss what improvements could be made.
Find out more about staying safe in the sun.
Shift work and cancer
In the past, 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. However, many of these studies looked at breast cancer in animals, and so couldn’t prove that shift work increases the risk of breast cancer in humans. In 2007, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) concluded that working night-shifts probably increases the risk of cancer. The evidence for this is unclear, some studies show a link while others do not. We need more high quality evidence before we can say for sure whether shift works affects the risk of breast cancer.
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
- Get to know what’s normal for you, to help you spot any unusual changes
- See your GP if you notice any unusual or persistent changes to your breasts