26 June 2012
More than 8000 cancer deaths in Britain each year can be attributed to work, a major piece of research has found.
The work related cancer study, funded by the HSE and published in the British Journal of Cancer, is the first to quantify in detail the burden of cancer in Britain caused by occupation.
Researchers used a list of work-related agents classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as group 1 (established) and group 2A (probable) carcinogens. They estimated the overall burden in Britain attributable to occupational carcinogens to be 5.3 per cent of all cancer deaths, and calculated the total number of deaths attributable to occupational carcinogens as 8010 (6355 for men and 1655 for women). They also found that 13,598 new cancer cases are caused by risk factors related to work each year.
Even though it is no longer used in construction, asbestos is the biggest contributor to both total attributable deaths and new cases, as maintenance of older buildings continues to expose workers to health risks. Just under half of the total deaths were among male construction workers, who are more likely than most to come into contact with asbestos, as well as other carcinogens, such as silica and diesel-engine exhaust.
After asbestos, the main work-related risk factors were night-shift work – linked to around 1960 female breast cancer cases and about 550 deaths from this disease; mineral oil in metal and printing industries – linked to around 1730 cases of bladder, lung and non-melanoma skin cancers; and sun exposure – related to around 1540 cases of skin cancer. Exposure to silica and diesel-engine exhaust fumes were also identified as high risk factors.
Lead researcher Dr Lesley Rushton, pointed out that the cancer with the highest number of cases and deaths linked to work is that affecting the lungs. She added: “One of the best ways we can beat the disease is by preventing it in the first place. Smoking is the single biggest impact on lung-cancer risk, but workplace risks are also having a significant effect.”
Several industry sectors contribute substantially to the overall cancer burden, including construction, manufacturing, mining, painting and decorating, personal and household services, printing and publishing, public administration and defence, and wholesale and retail trades.
Commenting on the growing evidence of a link between shift work and cancer, Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said: “The HSE has commissioned a review of the evidence on shift work and cancer – at the moment it’s still only classified as a probable cause of cancer. Once the review is complete in 2015, we will have a more definite understanding of the role it may play in influencing cancer risk.”
“At this point, we expect the Government and employers to take fast and appropriate action to minimise the risks faced by workers, and Cancer Research UK will be watching this closely.”
IOSH research and information services manager Jane White expressed a similar view, saying: “We need so much more research to be done into what causes work-related cancer. We’d urge the Government to recognise the importance of funding this vital work, such as exploring the effects of shift work on health, where disturbances to sleep patterns and the natural body clock can be very damaging.”
The TUC, however, called on the Government to take urgent action to tackle the cancer death toll. “We must not let this terrible legacy continue,” said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. “We should be making sure that carcinogens are removed from the workplace so that those working today will not develop cancers 20 or 30 years from now. “No one who reads this research can doubt that there is an urgent need for stronger safety regulation in the workplace, and for greater enforcement action against employers who take risks with their employees’ health.”