Set your location
Clear Selection


Is your job increasing your cancer risk?

October 4, 2016

Is your job increasing your cancer risk?

Each day most of us get up, get ready, farewell our family and head off to work... we don't expect that our job could increase the risk of being told "you have cancer" twenty to forty years down the track.

So what does that mean in Australia and what should we do about it? Let's have a look at the numbers...

It's estimated that around 3.6 million Australians are exposed to cancer causing agents (carcinogens) in the workplace and unfortunately around 5000 cancer cases are diagnosed each year as a result.

There are some workplace cancer risks that most of us would be familiar with. Asbestos, for example, is estimated to have caused around 2900 mesothelioma cases since 2011, more than 60% of those are likely to have been due to workplace exposure. Similarly, by now most of us know the risks of skin cancer associated with working outside. But there are other cancer risks at work we need to act on.

One common workplace carcinogen that Australians may be less familiar with is diesel exhaust emission (also known as diesel fumes). It is our second most common workplace cancer risk, behind UV.

It is estimated that about 1.2 million Australian workers or 14% of the workforce were exposed to diesel engine exhaust at work each year, with about 2% heavily exposed. That is leading to around 130 Australians developing lung cancer each year as a result of their exposure to diesel engine exhaust while on the job.

The risks associated with diesel fumes relate to what we breathe in. Diesel engine exhaust is created by burning diesel fuels and contains a mixture of airborne chemicals and particles including gases, vapours and soot. When inhaled in high quantities, diesel exhaust fumes can cause irritation in the airways within just a few minutes of exposure. High levels of exposure over many years can be even more harmful and can result in lung cancer. This is particularly thought to be the case because other carcinogens can stick to the soot, which are small enough to get deep into our lungs. Research has also found that diesel fumes possibly cause bladder cancer.

While the general population may occasionally be exposed to diesel engine exhaust, those working with diesel-powder equipment or vehicles are at the greatest cancer risk because of their higher levels of exposure.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) upgraded their classification of diesel fumes to a 'Group 1' carcinogen in 2012 and estimated that people regularly exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work can be up to 40 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer.

Diesel fume exposure can happen where diesel operated heavy vehicles are being used or wherever diesel fuelled motor vehicles like trucks, buses, tractors, trains and forklifts are running, especially in enclosed spaces like underground mines, garages and workshops. Workers in tunnels or on construction sites where diesel fuelled power sources (for instance compressors, generators or power plants) are being used may also be exposed to diesel fumes.

No matter what the job - if you are in a confined space with diesel fumes, you need to be aware and take action.

There is some good news. There are things you can do to reduce your risk, and some of these steps can be quite simple. For instance, using low sulphur or low emission fuels, making sure exhaust systems are cleaned and turned on and for professional drivers.

Table 1. Summary of control measures for diesel engine exhaust
Engine selectionReplace diesel powered engines with other energy sources (i.e. electric, gas) or choose low emission engines. Use purchasing guidelines for supply of engines that meet US Tier 4 or Euro 6 standards.
Fuel selectionUse ultra-low sulphur and other low-emission diesel fuels, fuel additives and low sulphur lubricants where possible. Avoid contaminating diesel fuel and lubricating oils.
Engine refurbishmentRefurbish engines to use low-sulphur fuel and to improve fuel efficiency.
Emission control devicesInstall devices that reduce emissions (e.g. particulate filters, catalytic converters, scrubbers, acoustic agglomeration, cyclones).
Enclosed equipmentDesign and maintain air-conditioned cabs where possible (positive pressure, HEPA filtered air supply, leak tested).
VentilationUse both local exhaust and forced dilution ventilation. Natural ventilation should not be used as a control method. Use connecting extraction pipes for vehicle exhausts in workshops. Cold engine starts should occur in spaces with good ventilation.
Maintenance and repairsHave a maintenance schedule for all engines and emission control equipment. Carry out emissions-based maintenance on engines (initial baseline testing and raw exhaust monitoring).
Testing of exhaust componentsUse raw exhaust tests to measure how well exhaust treatments are working. Test in normal working conditions (e.g. engines under load, in low gear with hot engine and hydraulics, engine revving at 70-80%). High and low idle tests are not enough.
Engine operationOperate engines to optimise combustion (e.g. drive to usual conditions, limit idling and over-revving). Turn off engines when not in use.
Worker education and trainingEducate workers on hazards and the policies and procedures used to manage them. This is a work health and safety requirement.[11] Report any changes in engine emissions or visible changes in the workplace (i.e. visible white, blue or black smoke, walls or surfaces covered in soot or smoky looking haze when diesel engines are in use).
Share activitiesRotate job tasks between your workers to reduce amount of time exposed to diesel engine exhaust.
PPEWear air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection that filters particulates. They should be fitted to each worker.

Employers can update diesel equipment with gear that meets low emission standards, ensure current equipment has appropriate emission controls and is well maintained and exhaust control and ventilation systems are well maintained and properly used.

To help Australian workers understand and reduce their workplace cancer risk, Cancer Council has developed a range of free resources outlining workplace risks for employers and employees. They cover other common workplace carcinogens in Australia including UV radiation (outdoor workers), asbestos (builders and renovators), welding fumes and second hand tobacco smoke.

Join us during Safe Work Month this October and every month thereafter and "kNOw workplace cancer". Together we can eliminate, substitute, control and protect ourselves from exposure to cancer causing agents at work.

Because no one wants to clock off and head home at the end of the day knowing that their risk of cancer has increased.