Reducing the occupational cancer burden

On Tuesday I was at the Safety and Health Expo at the ExCeL exhibition centre in London Docklands where I was contributing to the BOHS Worker Health Protection Arena.

During the afternoon I spoke with Leslie Rushton of Imperial College London on Occupational cancer – what you need to know. Lesley is is a medical statistician and epidemiologist and led the team that undertook research on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive to produce an updated and detailed estimate of the burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain.  Lesley spoke about the current picture based on the findings of the research while I concentrated on what we can do to prevent and control exposures to those agents responsible for occupational cancer.

The research indicated that about 8,000 cancer deaths and some 13,500 newly diagnosed cancer cases each year could be due to occupational exposures. The main causes that were identified are shown in the following chart.

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Occupational cancer deaths by cause in Great Britain, 2005

The research suggests that by 2060 the number of deaths from occupational cancer will have risen by 5,000 to 13,000 a year if we do nothing. So what do we need to do. That was the question that I addressed

The main cause of occupational cancer is asbestos, accounting for almost half of the deaths. The use of asbestos has now been prohibited in Europe, but there remains large amounts within the fabric of buildings constructed before the 1980’s. Providing asbestos containing materials are in good condition the risk to health should be minimal. The potential for exposure arises when they deteriorate or are being removed. Provided the requirements of the Control of Asbestos Regulations and the associated guidance are followed the risk to health should be controlled. But there are still situations where asbestos exposure can occur accidentally or in an uncontrolled manner.

With other carcinogens, the legal position is less specific. Nevertheless, exposure to the carcinogens, and the associated risk, can be controlled by application of good occupational hygiene practices. Central to this is the idea of the “hierarchy of control”.

During my talk I used examples of real life situations to show how adopting good occupational hygiene practices can be effective at minimising the risk.

In many cases, for common industrial processes, solutions are available from Regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, OSHA and NIOSH in the USA, and from industry sources. Unfortunately employers, especially small and medium sized countries, don’t know the information is available or how to find it. Trained, experienced, occupational hygienists are well placed to help employers locate the appropriate information to help them control the risks.

However, there are also situations when a ready made solution isn’t available – either because it’s a new process, or new substances are being handled where the hazards are not fully understood (e.g. nanoparticles) or a combination of both of these. In such cases, occupational hygienists have the underlying knowledge and skills to help employers assess the risks and develop solutions.

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