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Work cancer prevention kit: Part 3

Practical advice on reducing the workplace cancer risk

Tackling the top ten cancer causes at work

1 Asbestos
2 Silica
3 Metals
4 Solvents and other chemicals
5 Mineral oils
6 Wood dust
7 Diesel/vehicle exhaust fumes
8 Passive smoking
9 Solar radiation
10 Ionising radiation

Useful sources

1. Asbestos Suitable asbestos free alternatives available for all common uses. There is no reasonable argument for continued asbestos use and asbestos should be banned by governments and should not be used in workplaces. For asbestos in situ, asbestos management plans should be prepared, supervised and adhered to. Employers should know where asbestos is in their premises, and should ensure a record is kept and workers are informed of its presence if there is any possibility it might be disturbed. All work with a potential asbestos exposure should be undertaken only by properly trained and protected workers. Dust levels should be kept as low as practicable. Workers should be provided with appropriate health surveillance and all exposures should be recorded in an asbestos register.

Hazards website
BWI asbestos webpages:
BWI list of asbestos substitutes
TUC asbestos management checklist

2. Silica Exposure to crystalline silica should be minimised. In construction, more environmentally friendly alternatives should be considered at the design stage. Exposures to silica used in construction (brickwork, plaster, cement, concrete) can be reduced by proper design and planning. For example, cable conduits can be formed in concrete or built into design, removing the need to chase conduits [cut using stilsaws/stone saws or angle grinders] in brick or concrete. Local exhaust ventilation should be provided on all power tools. Exposure to silica in cement and plaster should be minimised. Suitable disposable masks, regularly replaced, should be used where alternative methods or control are not available. In foundries, safer alternatives are available for use in moulds.

LHSFNA silica advice
Silica Dust: Unite information

3. Metals Substances including arsenic, nickel, cadmium, beryllium and chromium have clear cancer associations. Where possible, alternative substances should be used. It is possible to plan a switch to safer alternatives. Some white goods manufacturers have already moved away from stainless steel because of the cancer risk. Creative approaches could involve using naturally anti-bacterial copper surfaces in some kitchens rather than stainless steel, which contains chrome and nickel. A Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) case history advises on safer alternatives to hexavalent chromium. Pesticides containing metals like chromium and arsenic can be replaced with properly designed integrated pest management systems or with safer alternatives. Where metals with a cancer risk are used in the workplace, ensure exposures are minimised by isolation of the work, enclosures and other engineering controls. Personal protective equipment should be provided where other methods are unsuitable or insufficient.

TURI website
Pesticides Action Network
PAN pesticides database, including safer alternatives

4. Solvents and other chemicals Organic solvents including benzene, toluene, tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene have been linked to cancer, and all have safer alternatives – either safer substances or alternative processes. The Toxics Use Reduction Institute, for example, has assisted companies switching from highly dangerous solvents in drycleaning to safer work methods. Its CleanerSolutions database includes lists of possible replacement products, performance test results and case histories. Alternative work methods to minimise mineral oil use can be used in auto maintencance and repair.

Solvents Alternatives Guide (SAGE)
TURI website
CleanerSolutions database
TURI auto maintenance and repair webpage
ILO chemical safety webpages
KEMI (Swedish Chemicals Agency) PRIO database – a tool for reducing risks form chemicals:
UNEP POPS alternatives database

5. Mineral oils. In engineering, water-based alternatives or different work methods (eg. use of hot water/soap degreasing; alternative machining methods) are available to mineral oil based metalworking fluids (cutting oils; coolants). Where mineral oils are used, minimise exposures, through enclosing the job, proper planned maintenance and task redesign. In foundries, safer alternatives are available for mould release oils.

NYCOSH machine fluids webpages
TURI website
CleanerSolutions database

6. Wood dust Reduce exposures through proper job design. Forward planning can ensure all machining is done in workshops with purpose designed exhaust ventilation and enclosures. In construction, most machining should be completed for wood is brought on to site. Once on site, safe work methods and local exhaust ventilation on power tools should be used. Where all other methods are inappropriate, personal protective equipment should be provided. Disposable masks much be suitable and must be changed regularly. Exposures to manufactured boards like medium density fibreboard (MDF) and ply can present additional risks when machined. Dusts can be very fine and the dust is also contaminated with formaldehyde, a possible cause of cancer in humans. The usual “nuisance dust” standard is not a safe standard for wood dust or wood-based board dust – mucociliary clearance (the body’s defence mechanisms for removing dust from the airways) are overwhelmed at much lower dust exposures (2mg/m3). Lowest possible exposures should be sought.

BWI wood dust factsheet

7. Diesel/vehicle exhaust fumes Minimise exposures, for example use LGP or battery forklifts indoors. In mining, technology exists to remove diesel exhaust fume and must be used. In loading bays, bus garages etc, avoid leaving vehicles idling - engines should be shut off or exhaust ventilation fixed to vehicle exhausts. Vehicles emitting exhaust fumes should not use used in enclosed spaces or spaces with limited ventilation.

CAW diesel exhaust factsheet

USW Canada factsheet on reducing diesel emissions in mines
USWA diesel exhaust factsheet

8. Passive smoking Introduce smoking policies at work. Aim to eliminate workplace exposures through introduction of workplace smoking bans. Where bans are not possible, protect non-smokers by creating designed areas for smokers outside of the general working, canteen and restroom areas.

Hazards website

ILO smoking webpages

9. Solar radiation Outdoor work presents a substantial occupational cancer risk as a result of exposure to sunlight (solar, non-ionising radiation). Schedule work so outdoor work is minimised at the hottest parts of the day – for example, time breaks or indoor work for this time. Workers should be provided protection – high protection factor (SPF 30+) skin creams should be provided and applied frequently. All workers should have suitable work clothing; including hats, preferably with neck protection, and shirts and trousers with close-weave breathable fabrics. The risk is not a summer risk only – winter sun can have very high UV levels.

CCOHS UV radiation factsheet
NYCOSH webpages on ionising and non-ionising radiation

10. Ionising radiationThere is no excuse for any exposure to sources of ionising radiation anywhere, whether in the nuclear industry, in laboratories, in hospitals or in non-destructive testing in engineering and other workplaces. Only fully trained and protected workers should ever handle radioactive sources.

ILO radiation protection webpages
NYCOSH webpages on ionising and non-ionising radiation


Useful sources

Hazards cancer webpages

New Jersey Department of Health listings of cancer causing substances, including factsheets on reducing exposure.

US National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens

Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS), Canada

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production

Prevent Cancer Coalition work and cancer webpages

Chemicals Policy Initiative

Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control

Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI)

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment

European Environmental Agency

Women’s Environmental Network

Children’s Environmental Health Network

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

International Society of Doctors for the Environment

Cancer Prevention and Education Society

OHS Reps @ Work cancer resources, Australia