How to protect workers from occupational cancers

Nov 15, 2017

labelsA new study quantifying the number of cancers resulting from workplace chemical exposure in Ontario is a wake-up call for employers across all industries. "We now have a picture of how big the problem of workplace cancer is in Ontario and it's clear there's work to be done," says WSPS Occupational Hygiene Consultant Craig Fairclough.

The study, Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario* estimates occupational exposures and the associated cancer burden (cases that could be prevented) for 20 known or suspected carcinogens by industry. This helps employers and employees learn what they could be exposed to at work.

The report urges immediate action on four key carcinogens - asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, silica, and solar ultraviolet radiation - because they present the best opportunity for making a large health impact

Recommendations in the report include a number of insights, including making exposure limits tougher and reducing the use of toxic substances.

These four carcinogens had the largest number of workers exposed and the highest cancer burden each year:

  • Asbestos will be banned in Ontario in 2018, but is still present in building materials, insulation, and brake linings
    • workers exposed: 55,000
    • industries affected: construction (maintenance of homes, schools and other public buildings), manufacturing, brake repair
  • Diesel engine exhaust
    • workers exposed: 301,000
    • workers affected: truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, maintenance and repair staff, miners and warehouse staff
  • Solar radiation
    • workers exposed: 450,000
    • industries affected: construction, agriculture (farmers, landscapers, ground maintenance), transportation and warehousing
  • Crystalline silica
    • workers exposed: 142,000
    • workers affected: construction workers, heavy equipment operators, manufacturing and miners. Exposure to fine silica dust can occur during grinding, cutting, drilling or chipping

Risks associated with shiftwork

Shiftwork has been linked to breast cancer. The connection: disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm. In Ontario, shiftwork may be responsible for 180 to 460 new cases of breast cancer each year, says the report.

"One effective measure to help prevent the adverse effects of shiftwork is to schedule rotating shift work schedules that move forward from morning-evening-night shift," says Craig. "For example: one week on mornings, then the next week on afternoons, so that the body has a better time adjusting. Proper breaks, sleep and good nutrition also help."

What Craig suggests

Here are five possible next steps:
  1. Use the report to build knowledge around these carcinogens and adapt suggested exposure reduction strategies to your workplace.
  2. Look into whether employees are or may be exposed to hazardous substances used or stored in your workplace. How many employees may be at risk and in what circumstances?
  3. Assess the levels employees are or could be exposed to.
  4. Compare the assessment results against regulated workplace exposure limits.
  5. If your workplace exceeds limits, take steps to eliminate exposure or bring it below the legal limit (e.g., ventilation, barriers, and enclosures).

How we can help

  • Talk to a WSPS Occupational Hygienist about inspecting, monitoring and controlling workplace carcinogens: 1-877-494-WSPS (9777).
  • Access our free downloads on hazardous agents in the workplace.
  • Learn more about Ontario's occupational exposure limits (OELs) for airborne concentrations of hazardous biological or chemical agents.

*Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario was jointly produced by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and Cancer Care Ontario