HSE figures of 13,500 occupational cancers a year an underestimate?


According to a 2011 study by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), some 13,500 new cases of occupational cancer are identified each year, of which more than 8,000 prove to be terminal.

Despite this, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has estimated that the true yearly level of occupational cancers could exceed 20,000.

Occupational Cancer

Since there can be no certainty of each cancer's specific cause, the HSE figures underestimate the true number of occupational cancer cases. Since the connection between a specific cancer and a specific substance is often unproven and in any event the NHS priority will be on diagnosis and treatment rather than establishing cause, any estimate of the number of occupational cancers is likely to reflect a sizeable shortfall.

The HSE figures are based on exposure estimates to certain and probable carcinogens as determined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Suspected carcinogens are not included.

Alcohol and tobacco-related cancer deaths among those who drink or smoke due to stress at work are also not covered by the HSE figures.

75% of all cancers are caused by 5 carcinogens: asbestos, shift work, mineral oils, the sun and silica. Of these, asbestos exposure accounts for by far the majority, reflecting the extreme vulnerability of the lungs to cancer.

Lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer which attacks the lining of the lungs, cause over 50% of cancer diagnoses and more than 80% of actual deaths. For this reason it is vitally important to control what dust and fumes are inhaled in the workplace.

Given the above, it may come as no surprise that the highest proportion of people diagnosed with occupational cancer work in construction, where the principal causes are asbestos, the sun and silica.

In the manufacturing sector, mineral oils are responsible for some 50% of occupational cancer deaths. Most at risk are metal workers, along with printers and others who work with the oils.

In the service sector, shift working is the main reason for occupational cancer, as well as asbestos and diesel exhaust.

Finally, since workers in construction and engineering are traditionally men, fewer women are afflicted by occupational cancer. For all but 2 of the main occupational cancers, the rate among men is higher than among women, except for cervical and breast cancer.

For the future, the fact that people are living longer and potentially exposed to carcinogens over a lengthier period mean instances of cancers may rise. However, by acting quickly and vigorously, the number of future cancers can be demonstrably reduced.

Researchers at Imperial College have showed that unenforced regulation alone is not enough to reduce occupational cancers, as only some 30% of employers comply with present HSE regulations. It is therefore crucial that a regulator such as HSE is given its head and allowed to enforce its sensible and potentially life-saving rulebook.

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