Occupational Cancer: Reducing the Risk to Workers

Occupational cancer is one of our nation's greatest health risks. Each year, millions of workers in the United States are exposed to cancer-causing substances called carcinogens.

It is estimated that approximately 20,000 cancer deaths and 40,000 new cases of cancer each year are attributable to conditions in the workplace -- specifically the exposure to carcinogens.

Sometimes, occupational cancer occurs in clusters. Health experts define clusters as an unusual concentration of cancer cases in a defined area or time. A cluster also occurs when the cancers are found among more workers of a different age or sex group than is usual. Studies reveal that such clusters are the result of carcinogen exposure.

Currently, many chemicals used in business have not been tested for carcinogens. According to the University of Iowa Health Care, in 1996, about 50,000 different chemicals were being produced for industrial activities in the United States and 1,000 new chemicals were being introduced annually. Only about 7,000 of these compounds were being thoroughly tested for their potential to cause cancer, and about 20 percent were found to be carcinogenic.

Most employers and workers are going to be exposed to some carcinogens without their knowledge. Therefore, steps need to be taken to improve worker safety.

What the Employer Should Do
An employer is responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment. Employers should do their part by conducting periodic worksite evaluations and providing medical surveillance. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires surveillance standards for asbestos, benzene, and other recognized carcinogens. Here are some other steps employers can take:

* Remove known or suspected carcinogens and replace them with safer materials
* If certain materials cannot be removed, reduce employees' exposure to the carcinogenic substances
* Provide information about all substances used
* Create a workplace health and safety committee to investigate suspected cancer-
causing substances
* Contain areas where known carcinogens are being used
* Make sure the exhaust ventilation system is working properly
* Provide all appropriate personal protection equipment and make sure it is being used properly

What the Employee Can Do
Some people are at a greater risk to develop cancer, due to many factors that come into play. These factors include:

* Personal characteristics such as age, sex, and race
* Family history of cancer
* Diet and personal habits such as cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption
* Presence of certain medical conditions
* Exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment and workplace

Individuals have no control over some factors. But they can reduce their risk to developing cancer by avoiding or reducing exposure to carcinogens at the workplace. Others ways for individuals to reduce their risk include:

* Elimination of unhealthy habits such as tobacco and alcohol
* Regular medical examinations

The combination of cigarette smoking and the exposure to many occupational carcinogens greatly increases the risk of cancer. Therefore, if an individual works in a high-risk occupation, they should immediately stop smoking.

-- Dan Harvey

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