Occupational Cancers - the figures

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Briefing for activists - February 2012

How many cancers are caused by occupational exposure every year?

The most recent estimate published by the HSE, published in 2011, is that around 13,500 new cases of cancer are caused by work every year with over 8,000 deaths.

This however underestimates the true number of cases. Giving a figure for what causes any kind of cancer can be very difficult as you cannot say for certainly what the cause of anyone's specific cancer is. If a construction worker develops skin cancer it could be because of their work, or it could be because of exposure to the sun when on holiday.

That is why any figures are estimates, based on the number of additional cases of cancer among people who are exposed at work to something that is known to cause cancer.

Also sometime the link between a specific cancer and a chemical or dust is only suspected and has not been proven yet.

Therefore, any estimate of the number of occupational cancers is likely to be an underestimation, possibly by a considerable amount.

The HSE figures are based on estimates of exposure to definite and probable carcinogens defined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and do not include suspected carcinogens.

The figures also do not include deaths from cancers caused by alcohol and tobacco amongst people who drink or smoke because of the stress of their work.

This briefing uses the HSE figures which were published in 2011. The TUC has estimated that the true level is more likely to be well over 20,000 cases a year.

What causes occupational cancers?

Three quarters of all cancers are caused by just five carcinogens. These are asbestos, shift work, mineral oils, the sun and silica.

Carcinogen

Number

Asbestos

4216

Shift work

1957

Mineral oils

1722

Solar Radiation

1541

Silica

907

Diesel Exhaust

801

Tars

475

Painters*

437

Dioxins

316

Second-hand tobacco smoke

284

Radon

209

Welders*

175

*Painters and welders may be exposed to a range of carcinogens so are listed as occupational group.

Types of cancer

Our lungs are the most vulnerable part of our body to cancer. Lung cancer and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung) are responsible for just over half of all cancer diagnosis. They are however responsible for over 80% of deaths. That is why controlling what dust and fumes we breathe in is so important.

Cancer

Cases

Deaths

Lung

5,442

4,745

Non melanoma skin cancer

2,862

23

Breast

1,969

555

Mesothelioma

1,937

1,937

Bladder

550

245

Oesophagus

188

184

Stomach

157

108

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

140

57

Sino-nasal

126

38

Sectors

Construction has, proportionately, a far higher number of people who are diagnosed with occupational cancer, with the main causes being asbestos, the sun and silica.

In Manufacturing the main cause of cancer is mineral oils which are responsible for almost half of the deaths from occupational cancer. Metal workers are most at risk, but so are printers and anyone else who works with the oils.

In the service sector the biggest cause of occupational cancer is shift-working, although asbestos and diesel exhaust are also a big problem.

Gender

Because men traditionally were more likely to work in engineering and construction more men get occupational cancer than women and for all but two of the main occupational cancers the rate amongst men is higher than that for women. The two exceptions are breast and cervical cancer. Although men can get breast cancer it is very rare. Cervical cancer can only affect women.

In the future the difference between men and women is likely to narrow as we have less job segregation on the grounds of gender.

Gender

Cases

Deaths

Men

9,988

6,355

Women

3,611

1,655

Future Burden

The number of cancers may go up simply because people are living longer and the longer you live the more chance there is of you developing cancer, however we can cut the future cancer number considerably by acting now.

Researchers at Imperial College have developed a mathematical model to ascertain the effects of various actions on cancer numbers in the future. In the case of silica halving the maximum exposure rate would reduce the number of cancers by 202 over the next 20 years, however the researchers also showed that regulation alone is only of limited value as it was estimated that only about 30% of employers complied with the current regulations. Were the limit to be reduced and enforcement increased so that 90% of workplaces complied, the number of cancers prevented would be a staggering 745 over the same period.

What we do today will have a major impact, but it will not be seen for perhaps 20 or even 40 years. By cutting regulation and enforcement it is not only fatalities from injuries that will go up, it is also future deaths from cancer.

What you can do

There is a TUC guide to preventing occupational cancers at www.tuc.org.uk/extras/occupationalcancer.pdf

Guidance on various topics, including asbestos, dust and the sun can be found at www.tuc.org.uk/healthandsafety

TUC Education and MacMillan Cancer Support have teamed up to produce guidance on how to support workers who have a diagnosis of cancer. It can be found at www.unionlearn.org.uk/files/publications/documents/184.pdf

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