Most work-related cancers are ‘avoidable’

Around 7,000 people in the UK die each year from work-related cancer, yet the vast majority of deaths are preventable.

That is the conclusion of a wide-ranging review that has identified approximately 250 different carcinogens as potential work-related causes of cancer.

The study, published in the Society of Occupational Medicine’s (SOM) journal Occupational Medicine, found that more than a million people in the UK are exposed to cancer-causing substances in their workplaces. Many, particularly those in the construction industry, painters and decorators, and staff who are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes from motor vehicles, are unaware of the risks, and because of this, appropriate controls are not put in place.

While asbestos came top of the carcinogen list, other substances such as crystalline silica found in construction and other industrial processes, particles from diesel engine exhausts, paints and mineral oils were all found to present a serious public health risk.

Five of the top 10 were all commonly found in construction, and occupational health professionals need to promote the message of improved control within this sector in particular, said the society. In almost all cases, simple practical steps could be taken to reduce exposure.

The SOM has recommended a regulatory step-change, with increased technical innovations and training to ensure the risks for workers are reduced.

It also called for a series of national surveys to be undertaken to gain a better understanding of the number of people exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace and the levels of exposure in different jobs and industries.

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