Following research commissioned by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to produce an updated and detailed estimate of the burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain, it has been reported that 8,000 cancer deaths and some 13,500 newly diagnosed cancer cases each year could be due to work-related exposures.

Dr Lesley Rushton and colleagues, from Imperial College London and colleagues from the Health and Safety Laboratory, the Institute of Occupational Medicine and the Institute of Environment and Health, were commissioned to carry out the research, which also showed that, without action,  annual numbers of occupational cancers are forecast to remain at over 10,000 by 2060.

Occupational exposure accounts for about 5% of all cancers, making it one of the most important causes of cancer, after smoking and diet/alcohol consumption.

Yet for many of the known causal agents of occupational cancers, occupational exposure limits have been specified and are in place, as are highly effective occupational hygiene control measures. However, the level of compliance with such exposure limits is low. For example, compliance in the case of workplace silica exposures is estimated at just 33%.

Some other key facts about work-related cancers include:

  • Currently, occupational asbestos exposure is the leading cause of deaths from occupational cancer at 2.6%
  • Other major causes are crystalline silica dust, diesel exhaust and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) found in tars, soot and other similar materials.
  • Activities and exposures associated with asbestos, silica dust, diesel exhaust and PAH alone account for almost 6,000 occupational cancers each year.
  • Each year, more than 2,000 cases of breast cancer in women are attributed to shift work that involves working at night or other unusual shift patterns that may disrupt the internal body clock.
  • The latest research shows we may, in future, see exposure to silica, diesel engine exhaust, solar radiation, shift work and painting/welding work continue to be some of the leading causes of occupational cancer.

The full report can be found on the HSE website.