Cancer risks in the workplace
- People working in some jobs may have a higher risk of some types of cancer
- In the UK, there are strict labour laws that limit exposure to harmful chemicals and other hazards at work
- Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees
This page looks at workplace cancer risk in general, as well as asbestos, night shift work and working in the sun. It doesn’t cover every cancer risk in the workplace, so if you’re concerned about something, in particular, talk to your employer.
And if you’re worried about a change to your body, take charge and speak to 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 types of work can carry a slightly higher risk, depending on what workers are exposed to. For example, working with asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, silica, pesticides and herbicides and working in the sun can all increase the risk of cancer.
Types of work that could carry a higher risk include:
- Agriculture, forestry and fishing.
- Construction and painting.
- Manufacturing and mining.
- Some service jobs.
Health and safety at work
Health and safety rules are designed to protect people at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Public Health England (PHE) provide more information about these rules for people working in England, Wales and Scotland. The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland provides this information for people working in Northern Ireland.
In 2015, exposure to health hazards at work causes around 9,000 cancer cases in the UK. But it’s important to remember that many of these cases are due to exposures from a long time ago, when health and safety rules were less developed.
Hazards at work are much less of a problem in the UK now, because the most dangerous chemicals are banned or can only be used in small amounts. UK law means that employers have to prevent or reduce exposure to anything that is known to cause cancer.
Asbestos and cancer risk
Asbestos was used in the past to insulate buildings. It’s 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.
All types of asbestos can cause cancer, but brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite) are more dangerous than white asbestos (chrysotile). This is because brown and blue asbestos fibres are short and sharp, and much harder for our bodies to break down.
Using asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, but some older buildings still contain it. And people who worked with asbestos in the past or who refurbish or repair structures containing asbestos could still be at risk.
What to do if you’ve come into contact with asbestos
Asbestos only becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air. So leave asbestos alone to avoid releasing any fibres.
It’s usually not possible to identify asbestos without training. So if you’re worried about asbestos in your home or workplace, get advice from an approved contractor. You or your employer can find one by contacting the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association. Only some people who have been exposed to asbestos get cancer. In these cases, it usually takes a long time (more than 20 years on average) for cancer to develop.
If you develop mesothelioma because of asbestos at work, you may be eligible for compensation.
Protecting your skin and working in the sun safely
Whether you’re working on a construction site or landscaping a garden, it’s important to protect your skin when the sun is strong.
In the UK, the sun can be strongest from early April to late September, between 11am and 3pm. Check the UV index – when it’s 3 or more, the sun is strong enough to damage some skin types.
When the sun is strong:
- Spend time in the shade if you can.
- Cover up with a hat that shades your face and neck as well as a long-sleeved top and sunglasses.
- Use sunscreen with at least SPF15 and 4 or 5 stars on parts not covered by clothing. Use it generously and reapply often.
If you do get sunburnt, talk to your employer about how to avoid this at work in future.
Find out more about staying safe in the sun.
Does night shift work cause cancer, including breast cancer?
The evidence for a link between shift work and cancer is unclear, some studies in humans 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 cancer, including breast, prostate and bowel cancer.
Based on current evidence, we can’t completely rule out a direct link between cancer and night-shift work. But if there is a link, the increased risk is likely to be small.
And we know that working in shifts can make it more difficult to make healthy changes stick. It is important for people who do shift work to think about the proven ways they can reduce their cancer risk.
Find out more about healthy changes that reduce the risk of cancer.
- 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.
- HSE. Occupational cancer statistics in Great Britain. https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/cancer.pdf Accessed 13 November 2020.