Occupational Cancer: A Silent Killer

Occupational Cancer: A Silent Killer

  • Date: Tuesday 12th May 2015

Scale of the problem


Thousands of people die each year from occupational cancer. It is believed that these cancers are a leading cause of work-related death worldwide, with asbestos related diseases accounting for in excess of 100,000 deaths annually.  In the United Kingdom there are now more than two million people living with cancer and over 700,000 are of working age.


Occupational cancer can be caused by exposure to three main carcinogen types: biological (e.g. Hepatitis B, HIV); chemical (e.g. vinyl chloride, diesel fumes) and physical (e.g. ionising and UV radiation). As a result certain occupations such as outdoor construction activities, painting and welding are associated with increased risks of some cancer types.


According to a year-long UK study 5.3 % of cancer deaths (equating to 8,010 deaths) were attributable to occupational exposure to carcinogens. The number of workplace deaths caused by accidents in the same period was around 200; almost 40 times more deaths attributable to occupational cancer than accidents. These figures clearly outstrip those for fatal incidents in the workplace, but the hidden nature of carcinogens, their chronic effects and a lack of industry knowledge continue to produce this unbelievably high number of preventable deaths and cancer registrations.


Exposure to the Sun


According to the research by Imperial College London it is estimated malignant melanoma kills nearly 50 people each year in the UK due to occupational exposure to solar radiation, with 240 new cases being registered.


Outdoor workers such as those in construction are particularly at risk. A study by the University of Nottingham found that two thirds of construction workers interviewed (who spent an average of 7 hours a day outdoors) didn't believe or were unaware that there was any risk from sun exposure. More than 60% of these reported to have sunburn at least once per year. It is reported that getting painful sunburn once every two years can triple the risk of developing melanomas.


The macho culture in some industries, cultural acceptance of a 'tan', coupled with lack of awareness of employers and employees has created a dangerous climate that is slowly building momentum. Due to the chronic nature of the skin damage, research has shown that the incidence of cancer peaks in the mid 50s to mid 60s; by then there may be little that can be done.


How is Skin Cancer Caused


Skin cancer is caused by the damage of skin DNA from overexposure to Ultra Violet (UV) rays. As our body tries to mend this, blood vessels in the local areas swell, allowing blood to rush in and repair tissues; this is why sunburn looks red and feels hot. When skin cell damage is severe the skin can peel to lose the damaged cells. However some damage can remain which builds up over time  leading to cancerous melanomas.


Workplace Control


Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from sun exposure if there is a foreseeable risk of developing skin cancer. Actions that can be taken are:


  • Identifying those at risk
  • Carrying out risk assessments
  • Advising, informing and training workers in the risks involved and company control measures
  • Documenting workplace procedures
  • Checking the daily UV index
  • Scheduling work to minimise exposure
  • Reducing exposure and avoiding the mid-day sun
  • Provision and use of cover and shade
  • Hats and neck coverage
  • Long, loose clothing
  • Job rotation
  • Provision of sun glasses
  • Application of appropriate sun creams
  • Provision and consumption of plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Skin checks and formal health surveillance


IOSH - No Time to Lose


Led by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and backed by business leaders, academics and Macmillan Cancer Support, the 'No Time to Lose' campaign calls for a collaboration of government and employers 'to beat occupational cancer'.  IOSH aims to get carcinogenic exposure issues more widely understood and help businesses take action. The campaign is working to raise awareness, suggest solutions and offer free resources that can be used by employers to deliver an effective programme ( www.notimetolose.org.uk) .


As supporters of the 'No Time to Lose  Campaign', SSG Directors Mark Salmon and Dr. Michael Cash were invited to the campaign launch at the Houses of Parliament and Royal Mail headquarters in London. Michael commented, 'At SSG we are continually spreading the word of the dangers of sun exposure at work through our news articles and the wide range of courses that we deliver to both leaders and employees of SMEs. This sector can be notoriously hard to reach, and its where consultancy and training companies like SSG can really help in campaigns and initiatives such as this.'


For more information on the control of exposure to the sun please contact one of our team on 01752 201616.


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