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Sep 2016

Occupational Cancer: What you should know and what you can do.


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Occupational Cancer has been a concern for a number of years. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are a projected 1.68 million cancer diagnoses for 2016. Out of all the cancer cases there are an estimated 600,000 individuals that will not survive. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that occupational carcinogens account for 40,000 cancer diagnoses every year. Of those 40,000, roughly half of them will prove to be fatal. 

Occupational Cancer: Trends and Facts

Cancer, in general, is the leading cause of death in the United States. However, that mortality rate is declining. The most recent report on cancer, from 1975-2012, shows that the average mortality rate for all cancers for men, women, and children have declined from 2002 – 2012. The death rate for women has decreased the least: 1.4% per year. Men have experienced the second-highest reduction at 1.8% per year. Finally, the cancer mortality rate for children has decreased 2% every year from 2002 to 2012.

In males, occupational cancer commonly manifests as cancer of the lungs. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), lung cancer makes up somewhere between 55% and 75% of all occupational cancers in men.

Carcinogens are chemicals or substances that are known to cause cancer. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has compiled a list of carcinogenic agents. However, according to the Center for Disease Control, only around 2% of all chemicals produced in the United States have been tested for carcinogenicity. This is a scary statistic as it reveals that the vast majority of chemicals manufactured or processed in the US that could continue to cause cancer in workers. The issue is that cancer often takes years to show itself, and can be hard to trace. This results in a delay in identifying carcinogenic agents.

How Occupational Cancer is identified

The Center for Disease Control identifies potential occupational carcinogens through “cancer clusters”. A “cluster” is a series of health conditions that appear in the same area or during the same time period. Carcinogenic agents in the workplace would cause cancer in a number of individuals. Officials narrow the criteria by identifying the type of cancer in question.

The CDC reports that half of men, and one-third of women in the United states will develop or die from some type of cancer at some point in their lifetime. These statistics show that cancer is quite common in the general population. An occupational exposure can be identified by taking the cases in question and cross-referencing them with the general statistics from the population in the area. For example, breast cancer is fairly common in women. So, seeing cases of breast cancer in women pop up in the same area or timeframe is not uncommon. However, if women were developing a cancer that runs contrary to averages and statistics, then it may be investigate more thoroughly for an occupational origin of exposure. 

What can your workplace do?

If you work in the mining, manufacturing, chemical processing, or other related industries, then you could be at risk for carcinogenic exposure. Employers should know the risks their employees face, and provide them with the necessary protection.

First, personal protective equipment is essential. Workers should be using proper equipment to protect themselves from vapors, gases, chemical spills, and toxic dust. Gloves, masks, respirators, and other pieces of PPE should be well maintained and available to all employees.

Training in the workplace should outline the dangers employees face. If employees are expected to work with carcinogenic agents, then they should be aware of the risks they face, as well as the steps they need to take to mitigate those risks. All dangerous chemicals and physical agents should be well marked with warning labels, and stored properly.

Finally, staying up to date on all OSHA information on carcinogens in the workplace is a must. Employers should be aware of news regarding newly identified carcinogens, breakthroughs on PPE, and other topics that are directly applicable to the safety of workers.

Remember, only 2% of chemicals manufactured or processed in the United States are tested for carcinogenicity. Even though cancer mortality rates have been decreasing, there is still plenty of room for occupational cancer to claim more victims. Employers need to be aware of the risks their employees face. Stay up to date, and stay informed.

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