Occupational cancer Risks

Cancer is caused by exposure to harmful materials and certain types of radiation. Workers in some jobs are at more risk of being exposed to these cancer-causing agents. It’s the responsibility of both employers and workers to make sure everyone stays safe.

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The risks

At the worksite workers can be exposed to carcinogenic material through:



  • Inhalation
  • Absorption through the skin
  • Ingestion

Workers and family members can also be exposed through “take home” exposure. Workers who work with carcinogenic  material should always change into their street clothes before leaving work. Bringing home your work clothes can also bring carcinogenic materials into your home.In many cases, certain types of cancer(s) are associated with specific occupations or carcinogens. The table below lists some of the carcinogens, the cancers they cause, and the occupations in which workers are most commonly exposed.

  • Occupation Hazardous material or agent Cancer types
    Agriculture workers Diesel engine exhaust Lung
    Pesticides Lung
    Other organ
    Solar radiation Skin
    Building maintenance workers Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Silica Lung
    Construction workers
    (residential, industrial, commercial)
    Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Ionizing radiation Lung
    Skin
    Silica Lung
    Wood dust Nasal
    Electricians Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    PCBs Liver
    Other organ
    Furniture and cabinet makers Formaldehyde Pharynx & nasopharynx
    Wood dust Nasal
    Healthcare workers Formaldehyde Pharynx & nasopharynx
    Hepatitis C Liver
    Mechanics Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Diesel engine exhaust Lung
    Metalworkers Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Oil & gas workers Diesel engine exhaust Lung
    Silica Lung
    Painters Lead, solvents Lung
    Other organ
    Pest control workers Arsenic Liver
    Skin
    Other organ
    Pesticides Lung
    Other organ
    Plumbers Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Pulp & paper mill
    and wood products
    manufacturing workers
    Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Formaldehyde Pharynx & nasopharynx
    Road construction workers Diesel engine exhaust Lung
    Silica Lung
    Solar radiation Skin
    Roofers Asbestos Lung
    Mesothelioma
    Silica Lung
    Solar radiation Skin

    How to reduce the risks

    If workers could be exposed to airborne hazards in the workplace, the employer must develop and implement an exposure control plan (ECP). This plan must identify the workers at risk of exposure and the controls that are required to protect those workers. Exposure to carcinogens must be kept as low as reasonably achievable. The controls will be unique to each worksite and work environment. When choosing risk controls, consider the following questions. These are grouped according to type of control. The types of control are listed here in order of effectiveness.

Steps to reduce the risk

  1. Substitution

    This involves eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible. It is the most effective control. Some questions to consider:

    • Can a less hazardous material be used?
    • Can a different process be used that generates less of the hazardous substance?
  2. Engineering controls

    This type of control involves making physical modifications to control the hazard or reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Can local exhaust ventilation be used to reduce worker exposure?
    • Can the process be isolated so workers are not exposed to the hazard?
  3. Administrative controls

    This type of control involves changing work practices and policies. Awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. Some questions to consider:

    • Have workers been trained on the health effects of exposure to the hazards?
    • Are written safe work procedures available?
    • Is there an effective personal hygiene program for workers?
  4. Personal protective equipment

    This is the least effective type of control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:

    • Are workers using respirators as required by the exposure control plan?
    • Are workers using protective clothing as required by the exposure control plan?
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