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5 workplace cancer risks you may not be aware of

November 1, 2018


You may be aware that some lifestyle factors such as smoking or alcohol can cause cancer, but are you aware of potential cancer risks in your workplace? In Australia, sadly around 5000 work-related cancers are diagnosed each year. 

So what are some of the most common occupational carcinogens in Australian workplaces and what can you do to minimise your risk? Here are five risks you should be aware of: 


  • Construction materials, insulation products, gaskets, friction brake products, and vehicle and plant equipment that was installed, built, manufactured, commissioned or designed prior to 1 January 2004 are likely to contain asbestos. Make sure you know what to do if you come across asbestos such as enclosing asbestos complete using wet, non-destructive methods for removal. Our kNOw asbestos online course will help you get up to speed. 

Diesel engine exhaust (DEE) 

  • It is estimated that 1.2 million workers in Australia are exposed to DEE. Walls covered in soot, a blue, black or smoky haze in the workplace or complaints of sore eyes, an irritated throat or nausea are all signs that DEE could be present in your workplace.  A summary of control measures can be viewed here.

Silica dust 

  • Silica dust is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, so you can be breathing it in without knowing. The mandatory limit for silica dust exposure in Australia is 0.1mg/m3 averaged over an eight-hour period Control measures such as using safe construction, planning and design as well as the correct equipment will help reduce risks. For a full summary of control measures view here. 

Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) 

  • Temperature is not related to solar UVR strength. We can't feel solar UVR so our skin can be damaged without us knowing.  If you work outdoors you should use sun protection all year round. This includes slipping on protective clothing, slopping on SPF30 or higher sunscreen, slapping on a broadbrim hat, seeking shade and sliding on sunglasses. 

MDF board  

  • MDF board is a timber product made from hardwood and softwood fibres that are glued together with wax and a resin adhesive containing urea-formaldehyde. Both wood dust and formaldehyde are Group 1 carcinogens. When working with wood products, dust and free formaldehyde are released. Formaldehyde is absorbed by the dust particles which may cause cancer when either breathed in or come into contact with the skin, frequently, over a long time period.  

What can I do? 

All employers should be aware of the risks in their industry, ensure the risk is removed or reduced using the risk management process, and the hierarchy of risk control.  Workers must also take reasonable care of their own health and safety and follow instructions and work health and safety policies. 

If you are concerned about the adequacy of control measures in the workplace, contact: 

  1. your workplace supervisor or management 
  2. your workplace health and safety representative or union representative 
  3. Safe Work Australia. 

October is Safe Work Month and Cancer Council's kNOw Workplace Cancer initiative has released a range of new resources to help educate workers and create a safer workplace by minimising the risk of exposure to common workplace carcinogens