Cancer Council Australia

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Workplace cancer

Occupational cancers are those that occur due to exposure to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents in the workplace. Such exposures include:

  • a wide range of different industrial chemicals, dusts, metals and combustion products (e.g. asbestos or diesel engine exhaust)
  • forms of radiation (e.g. ultraviolet or ionising radiation)
  • entire professions and industries (e.g. working as a painter, or in aluminium production)
  • patterns of behaviour (e.g. shift working).

Occupational exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cause over 5000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified over 165 cancer causing agents that workers are potentially being exposed to in their workplace. A study in 2012 considered 38 of these agents of high priority and specific to Australian workplaces. The list can be found in the Occupational Exposures to Carcinogens in Australia monograph, page 3.

In a survey completed in 2012, the Australian working population revealed that the most common carcinogenic exposures in the workplace were solar ultraviolet radiation, diesel engine exhaust, environmental tobacco (second-hand) smoke, benzene, lead and silica.

Occupational groups where exposure was greatest included farmers, drivers, miners and transport workers. Exposures reported for men compared to those reported for women showed that a much higher proportion of males were exposed to one or more carcinogens at work, particularly those who hold a trade and are residing in regional areas.

 The five most common workplace cancers* in Australia in men and women (2006)
Male Mesothelioma 90%
  Bronchus and lung 29%
  Nose and nasal sinus 24%
  Leukaemia 18.5%
  Bladder 14.2%
Female Mesothelioma 25%
  Nose and nasal sinus 6.7%
  Cervix 5.9%
  Stomach 5.4%
  Brochus and lung 5.3%
  Liver 5.3%

*Number of cancers as recorded in Australia in 2000; excludes non-melanoma skin cancer.


Common carcinogens

As of June 2016, IARC had identified 198 known and probable cancer causing agents and circumstances; exposure to a number of these agents primarily occurs within the workplace. Some of the most common carcinogens found in Australian workplaces include:

  • solar ultraviolet radiation
  • diesel engine exhaust
  • environmental tobacco smoke
  • benzene - benzene is found in crude oil and is a major part of petrol. Used to produce plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides
  • lead
  • silica - blasting, cutting, chipping, drilling and grinding materials that contain silica can result in silica dust that is not safe to breathe in
  • wood dust
  • artificial ultraviolet radiation
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – organic chemicals released from burning organic substances such as coal, oil and petrol
  • chromium VI - occurs during activities such as welding on stainless steel and other alloy steels containing chromium metal.

Prevention is better than a cure

Putting in place control measures for carcinogenic hazards is the only way to reduce your cancer risk at work. Therefore, you should always follow the outlined safe work practices at your workplace.

Cancer Council has developed fact sheets around various occupational carcinogens, designed for both employers and employees. They provide information about some workplace cancer risks, how you can control them, legal obligations and where you can go for more information.

If you are concerned about possible cancer causing agents in your workplace please contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20. If you know someone who might be exposed to a carcinogen at work, please share this page with them.

For information on compensation for work-related cancers, download the pdf.

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Explore this section:

Learn about why asbestos is dangerous, where it might be present in your workplace and measures to reduce your risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.

Cancer Council has also developed an online course to give the DIY home renovator basic knowledge about asbestos, the risks and safe practices.

Asbestos-Containing Material Check is a new app designed to help you identify materials around your home that could contain asbestos fibres.

Learn about how different types of welding and different products used in the welding process can produce different types of fume. Some welding fumes can cause cancer.

Read more information about diesel engine exhaust and how it can cause cancer. Learn how to reduce your exposure to diesel exhaust in the workplace.

Learn more about your cancer risk from solar UVR at work. Environmental factors such as solar elevation, cloud cover and altitude will affect your risk from solar UVR.

Tobacco smoke increases your risk of both short- and long-term health problems. Read more about the occupational hazards related to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).

Exposure to silica-containing materials can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Read more about reducing your exposure to silica dust in the workplace.

Share your work place cancer story

If you have a personal experience of work place cancer you would like to share, we would like to hear from you. Knowing others' personal experience of cancer, whether personally or through a relative or colleague, can be a source of hope, support and inspiration.

Wayne's story

There are many challenges in linking work to cancer. One of those challenges is the long time gap between a particular exposure and a cancer diagnosis. Wayne Higgs was diagnosed with maxillary cancer which may have been caused by a glue he used in his work environment. Click to hear Wayne’s story

Graham's story

Working as an electrician, Graham use to do a lot of welding jobs with no control measures in place. The UV produced from welding has likely contributed to numerous squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas needing to be removed from his arms, chest and legs. Graham was also not aware that the welding fume produced was also a group one cancer-causing agent. Click hear to hear Graham’s story.

Other useful websites

Specific work health and safety laws by state and territory:

For further international information and free resources on workplace carcinogens including solar UVR, diesel engine exhaust, silica dust and asbestos please visit the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s No Time to Lose web-page


          • Fritschi, L. and T. Driscoll. Cancer due to occupation in Australia. J Public Health. 2006;30:213-219.
          • Carey, R.N., et al. Estimated prevalence of exposure to occupational carcinogens in Australia  (2011-2012). Occup Environ Med. 2014;71(1):55-62
          • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. Lyon, France: IARC World Health Organisation; 2013.  
          • Fernandez, R.C. Driscoll, T.R. Glass, D.C. Vallance, D. Reid, A., Benke, G., et al. A priority list of occupational carcinogenic agents for preventative action in Australia. Aust NZ J Public Health. 2012;36:111-115.
          • Safe Work Australia. How to manage work health and safety risks – Code of Practice. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia; 2011.

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This content has been developed by Cancer Council Australia’s Occupational and Environmental Cancer Sub-Committee.

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, December 4, 2018

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