Occupational cancer burden: target new workers
The health and safety profession needs to focus its efforts on preventative measures that will protect new workers entering industry if the burden of occupational cancers is to be reduced in the coming decades.
Speaking at the British Safety Council’s annual conference last week, Dr Lesley Rushton from Imperial College highlighted the main findings from the HSE-commissioned research she carried out.
Dr Rushton explained that cancer was a disease of the elderly and tended to occur when workers had retired. Because of the legacy of past exposure, occupational cancers had a long latency and therefore the number of cases was expected to rise over the next three decades.
“About 5.5 per cent of cancers occurring every year in this country are due to occupational exposures to carcinogens in the past,” she said.
“If you can think of this as an annual figure, this translates into about 8,000 deaths a year and about 13,500 newly occurring cancers. It’s not an inconsiderable number in stark contrast to the much smaller number of fatalities from accidents.”
Dr Rushton argued that health and safety professionals should target new arrivals in the workplace to ensure that they were sufficiently protected. It was also important to focus on newly occurring cancers because fortunately survival rates are now much better.
Drawing on standards set by the International Agency for Research in Lyon, Dr Rushton explained that her research
had set out to quantify the number of new cancers directly attributable to occupational carcinogens.
She had also looked at what would happen if safety professionals took no action to reduce current exposures.
Looking at the main industries linked with occupational cancers, she said that
a large proportion – 5,500 of the 13,500 newly occurring cancers – was found in the construction sector, where workers were exposed to 16 different carcinogens. An emerging issue, she added, was skin cancer.
“We estimate that 100 construction workers a year will get a melanoma and 20 will die due to solar radiation exposure at work, so we need to try to encourage construction workers to wear sun screen.”
Taking silica dust as another example,
Dr Rushton said that only a third of industries were compliant with current exposure limits. She said her research work had experimented with halving the exposure limit and improving compliance by a third to 90 per cent to see how this would impact on different sized workplaces.
“If we don’t do anything, we are going to have about 800 new lung cancers every year occurring due to silica exposure and that is going to stay the same as we go through the years,” she said.
“But supposing we halve the limit. Then,
we are going to save about 200 cancers in 2060. If we do it again, we are going to save about another 200. However, the big impact is that if you keep the limit the same but improve compliance to 90 per cent, you get an immediate saving of nearly 700 lung cancers.”
Drawing further on her research, she identified a number of major causes of newly occurring cancers, including shift work.
“Millions of women work night work and it’s associated with disruption of the circadian rhythm, which is associated with hormonal changes, which increases the risk of breast cancer,” she said.
“Lots of studies are going on, including some funded by the Health and Safety Executive, to try and work out what shift patterns we should be aiming for.”
Dr Rushton also said that safety professionals should be taking into account mineral oils and the different routes of exposure, including dermal exposure for skin cancers, inhalation exposure for sinol nasal cancers and lung cancers, and both for bladder cancers.
She said that people that worked in service industries, including repairs, dry cleaning and hairdressing also needed better protection.
“The exposures are low but an awful lot of people are exposed. We mustn’t forget that. It isn’t just the high exposures but the people that are exposed to the low levels that still have a small risk.”
Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing
Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.
This free director’s briefing contains:
- Key points;
- Recommendations for employers;
- Case law;
- Legal duties.