The Burden of Cancer at Work: Estimation as the first step to prevention

Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2007 Dec 13 [Epub ahead of print] [Link]

Rushton L, Hutchings S, Brown TP.

Imperial College London, United Kingdom.


Objectives: Work-related cancers are largely preventable. The overall aim of this project is to estimate the current burden of cancer in Great Britain attributable to occupational factors and identify carcinogenic agents, industries and occupations for targeting risk prevention.

Methods: Attributable fractions and numbers were estimated for mortality and incidence for bladder, lung, non-melanoma skin, and sinonasal cancers, leukaemia and mesothelioma for agents and occupations classified as IARC group 1 and 2A carcinogens with “strong” or “suggestive” evidence for carcinogenicity at the specific cancer site in humans. Risk estimates were obtained from published literature and national data sources used for estimating proportions exposed.

Results: In 2004, 78237 men and 71666 women died from cancer in Great Britain. Of these, 7317 (4.9%) deaths (men: 6259 (8%); women: 1058 (1.5%)) were estimated to be attributable to work-related carcinogens for the 6 cancers assessed. Incidence estimates were 13338 (4.0%) registrations (men: 11284 (6.7%); women 2054 (1.2%)). Asbestos contributed over half the occupational attributable deaths, followed by silica, diesel engine exhaust, radon, work as a painter, mineral oils in metal workers and in the printing industry, environmental tobacco smoke (non-smokers), work as a welder and dioxins. Occupational exposure to solar radiation, mineral oils and coal tars/pitches contributed 2557, 1867 and 550 skin cancer registrations respectively. Industries/occupations with large numbers of deaths and/or registrations include construction, metal working, personal and household services, mining (not metals), land transport and services allied to transport, roofing, road repair/construction, printing, farming, the Armed
Forces, some other service industry sectors and manufacture of transport equipment, fabricated metal products, machinery, non-ferrous metals and metal products, and chemicals.

Conclusions: Estimates for all but leukaemia are greater than those currently used in UK health and safety strategy planning and contrast with small numbers (200-240 annually) from occupational accidents. Sources of uncertainty in the estimates arise principally from approximate data and methodological issues. On balance, the estimates are likely to be a conservative estimate of the true risk. Long latency means that past high exposures will continue to give substantial numbers in the near future. Although levels of many exposures have reduced, recent measurements of others, such as wood dust and respirable quartz, show continuing high levels.