Official figures underestimate deaths from occupational cancer

The UK is facing a cancer epidemic caused by exposure to carcinogens at work that could be killing up to 24,000 people every year, according to a TUC report.

This is four times official estimates. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that just 4% of the UK’s annual cancer death toll, is as a result of exposure to carcinogens at work, which it says is equal to 6,000 deaths a year.

But the Burying the Evidence report by Hazards, the TUC-backed health and safety magazine, concludes that the incidence of occupational cancer in the UK is much higher, and suggests that it is between 12,000 and 24,000 deaths a year.

Although there are limits regarding exposures to hazardous chemicals such as crystalline silica, radon, diesel engine exhaust, benzene and lead compounds in the UK, the TUC believes that many employers are risking the future well-being of their employees by not adhering strictly to the rules.

More inspections of workplaces would make it difficult for employers to get away with needlessly exposing their staff to toxic substances, says the TUC.

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: “Britain is facing a workplace cancer epidemic which is being largely hidden by official estimates.

“Much more could be done to prevent workers being needlessly exposed to potentially life-threatening chemicals and toxins, but a massive underestimation of the problem is jeopardising people’s lives.”

Burying the Evidence contains a number of recommendations for action:

The government should come up with the resources to fund a major national occupational cancer prevention and awareness-raising campaign

  • The out-of-date occupational cancer estimates held by the HSE must be revised immediately and more resources allocated to allow an increase in the number of workplace safety inspections

  • The use of the most dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals should be phased out and companies should be forced to investigate the use of safer alternatives

  • A national system of occupational health records should be introduced which could move with an individual throughout their working life.

  • Employers should be made to tell employees of the risks they face when working with certain substances.

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