Britain's Occupational Cancer Explored in HSE Study

Occupational health issues form the basis of many personal injury claims in the UK each year, although, the majority of workplace accident claims involve physical injuries acquired from slips, trips or falls from height. The health of workers is obviously an important issue, in both a human and economic context, yet employers on the whole have been accused of ignoring various work-related conditions such as stress, which is arguably given less attention than illnesses that produce visible physical symptoms, including work related upper limb disorders (ULDs) or repetitive strain injury (RSI). Employers are naturally reluctant to accept liability for their workers’ health problems and it ought not to be suggested that normal working conditions are bad for people. However, as revealed in a new study funded by the Health and Safety Executive, it is clear that the relationship between work and poor health can be incredibly strong.

Entitled ‘The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain’, the report aimed to establish a reliable estimate as to the current burden of occupational cancer in Britain. In order to achieve this, researchers used attributable fraction (AF) to measure the burden on the country’s workforce. Attributable fraction refers to the proportion of cancer cases that would not have occurred but for the exposure; in this respect, exposure describes any work-related activity or carcinogen that is known to cause or exacerbate cancer. Clearly, any significant link between work and cancer raises difficulties for employers, who are duty-bound to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees so far as is reasonably practicable, as prescribed by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain report classified exposure as either Group 1 or Group 2A, where the latter refers to probable cases and the former describes those that have been officially established; this classification system is used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Worryingly, the Health and Safety Executive study found that 5.3 per cent of all cancer-related fatalities in Great Britain during 2005 were attributable to occupation.

The report also revealed a disturbing trend affecting both male and female cancer sufferers; 56 per cent of all cancer registrations in men were attributable to work in the construction industry, whilst 54 per cent of cancer registrations in women were attributable to shift work. Male subjects who worked in the construction industry suffered primarily from mesothelioma, lung, bladder and non-melanoma skin cancers, whereas female shift workers most commonly developed breast cancer.

The Health and Safety Executive study identified a number of factors known to cause or contribute towards the development of cancer in workers. Occupational attributable fractions were relatively high (over 2 per cent) for mesothelioma, lung cancer, breast cancer, non-melanoma skin cancer, bladder cancer and soft tissue sarcoma. The report also highlighted asbestos, mineral oils, solar radiation, silica dust, diesel engine exhaust fumes, dioxins, tobacco smoke, tetrachloroethylene, strong inorganic mists and shift work as each causing more than 100 cancer registrations. Ensuring that workers are protected from harm in the workplace does not merely involve an assessment as to whether sufficient guard rails are installed, machinery maintained and so on; indeed, employers must also equip workers with the skills, knowledge and equipment to avoid unnecessary exposure to factors that are known to cause cancer and other such illnesses.

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