The Queensland Cancer Council has recently published data relating to cancers linked to the workplace. Alarmingly there are an estimated 5000 cancer cases each year that have some type of link to the workplace. This is a large number, especially when compared to some recently released injury statistics by Safe Work Australia. In the 2014-15 financial year there were 132 compensated workplace fatalities due to injury, and 107,355 compensated serious workplace injuries (serious = 1 week or more off work). Given the gravity of many cancer claims this make the number of 5000 appear very significant – and the real rate may be much higher than that.

Cancer rates for workplaces are very difficult to accurately estimate as there are a number of difficulties in making this estimation. Firstly cancer will often not be reported to the workplace or a workers compensation insurer as the person may not realise that there is a link between their cancer and their workplace. Exposure to a chemical is a classic example. The worker may not have known about the exposure or if they did know, did not appreciate the link to their cancer. Also, the exposure may have been at a workplace that they worked at a number of years ago.  Many cancers have long latency between exposure and and diagnosis which again will likely result in significant under-reporting.

The second issue with cancer and its link to workplace is setting a threshold for how big an association there needs to for it to be “linked” to the workplace. Take melanoma for example. For any outdoor worker there will likely be work related and non-work related causes for the skin cancer. Just what proportion is caused by or linked to the workplace will vary. Even if we could accurately apportion the contribution by the workplace, what would be the threshold? There is no clear answer here.

These issues aside, no matter what data you look at there is clearly a link between many workplaces and the diagnosis of cancer for some people. So what are the high risk workplaces when it comes to this issue? According to the Cancer Council some of the more common carcinogens found in workplaces include:

  • ultraviolet radiation
  • diesel engine exhaust
  • environmental tobacco smoke
  • and benzene.

All workplaces should assess their risk for these and other potential carcinogens if relevant.

Some relevant codes of practice from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland may include: