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Occupational cancer can be prevented in the construction sector

I would like to mark Workers’ Memorial Day by remembering the 13,000 workers who, it is estimated, died last year as a result of work-related diseases.

Disturbingly, the majority of these deaths – an estimated 8,000 - were as a result of occupational cancer and, regrettably, the construction industry has the largest number of occupational cancer cases.

A total of 3,500 cancer deaths –over 40 per cent of the total occupational cancer deaths – were from the construction sector. It is a curious anomaly that these thousands of deaths are rarely reported in the news.

While we recently – and rightly so – heard several news reports about the tragic death of a single construction worker in a building collapse in Mayfair, thousands of other deaths in the construction sector are effectively hidden from the public gaze.

“It is a curious anomaly that these thousands of [work-related disease] deaths are rarely reported in the news”

They aren’t dramatic in the way a building collapse is. They are slow.

The construction worker who breathes in clouds of silica dust each day as he works is often completely unaware that he risks painful and deadly lung cancer or silicosis – many years later - as a result of his employer’s failure to fit simple ventilation or a water supply to his tools.

Most of the cancer deaths in the construction industry are caused by past exposures to asbestos and silica. In addition solar radiation, coal tars and pitches are responsible for many new cancer cases each year, mainly skin cancers other than melanomas. Other major causes of cancer include painting, mineral oils, shift work and diesel engine exhaust.

For many known carcinogens, occupational exposure limits have been specified and are in place, as are highly effective occupational hygiene control measures. Yet, shockingly, the level of compliance with such exposure limits is low.

“We call on employers to comply with the legal exposure limits for known carcinogens… We urge the [HSE] to be robust in its enforcement of the law”

As an example, recent research has shown that compliance in the case of workplace silica exposures was estimated at just 33 per cent.

There are currently around 800 lung cancer deaths per year due to long-term exposure to silica dust at work and yet almost all these deaths could be prevented in the future if simple, specific occupational hygiene interventions were introduced.

This Workers’ Memorial Day, BOHS is calling for a comprehensive approach to occupational cancer.

We call on employers to comply with the legal exposure limits for known carcinogens. Employers and workers should be aware that occupational cancer can and should be prevented.

“A total of 3,500 cancer deaths – over 40 per cent of the total occupational cancer deaths – were from the construction sector”

Occupational hygienists have the knowledge and skills to put in place cost effective, highly practical solutions which can control the complex risks associated with cancer.

Second, whilst we are aware of the impact which cumulative budgetary reductions have had on the operational capacity of the Health and Safety Executive, we urge the regulator to be robust in its enforcement of the law.

Finally, we call on the government to demonstrate the political will to prevent unnecessary loss of life from work-related cancers.

Mike Slater is president of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS).

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