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Every day millions of Canadians head out to work, maybe not fully aware that in their job or place of work, they are being exposed to cancer-causing substances. These carcinogens can be viruses, chemicals, naturally occurring minerals, or solar radiation.
Recent statistics from the World Health Organization show that cancer kills an estimated 9.6 million people globally each year. Approximately 3-6% of these cancers are caused by exposures to carcinogens in the workplace, according to research cited by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
These work-related cancers may be preventable if exposures to known or suspected carcinogens are reduced or eliminated.
There are some occupations where cancer has been linked with exposure to specific substances. Common occupational cancers include lung cancer (exposure to arsenic, asbestos, benzo[a]pyrene, and several other chemicals), mesothelioma (exposure to asbestos), and bladder cancer (exposure to aromatic amines, and other chemicals). For more examples, please see the CCOHS fact sheet on cancer sites associated with occupational exposures.
Three Common Workplace Cancer Issues
Historically used in construction materials because of its heat resistant properties, tensile strength and insulating characteristics, asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals. Asbestos has been banned in Canada since 2018 but may still be encountered during remediation projects.
In Canada, there are approximately 1,900 cases of lung cancer and 430 cases of mesothelioma from workplace exposure diagnosed each year. Because mesothelioma symptoms typically appear 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos there are still new cases being diagnosed every year.
CAREX Canada has identified that most asbestos-related cancers occur among workers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Safely removing all existing asbestos from buildings and workplaces before the asbestos deteriorates (becomes airborne) is the most common way to reduce exposure.
Diesel Engine Exhaust
According to CAREX Canada, approximately 900,000 Canadians are exposed to diesel engine exhaust at work. Burning diesel fuel in engines produces diesel exhaust, a complex mixture of gases and particulates. This mixture can contain known and suspected carcinogens such as benzene, hydrocarbons, and metals.
Inhalation is the most common route of exposure and each year in Canada there are 560 lung cancers and 200 suspected bladder cancers associated with workplace diesel exhaust exposure. Sectors most affected are mining, oil and gas extraction, transportation and warehousing.
Strategies for reducing exposure include replacing old diesel engines with low-emission models, using diesel fuel alternatives, performing regular engine maintenance, implementing exhaust treatment systems, and using exhaust extraction systems in indoor work environments.
Night Shift Work
Night shift work is work scheduled consistently outside of the standard daytime work hours. Generally, when we are awake between the hours of 12am and 5am, night shift work disrupts circadian rhythms, or the internal biological ‘clock’ that generates the sleep-wake cycle in humans. As a result, it suppresses melatonin production, and disrupts sleep patterns and food digestion. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen.
Approximately 844,000 women perform regular night or rotating shiftwork in Canada, based on 2006 labour data. Each year in Canada, there are up to 1,200 new cases of suspected female breast cancers due to shiftwork. CAREX Canada reports that the healthcare and social assistance sector accounts for 43% of new cases, and accommodation and food services 18%.
Completing work during standard, daylight hours is the best way to limit circadian rhythm disruption, however eliminating nights is not a practical option. Night work is necessary to maintain essential services such as healthcare and law enforcement. Shift changes should be made in such a way that the worker can adapt easily to them. 'Rotating forward' (morning - afternoon - night) has been proven to be easier to adapt to than rotating backwards or having irregular shift changes.
Long Latency Period
The long latency of cancer and the involvement of many factors in its development make it challenging to track and study occupational cancer. The time between the initial exposure to a carcinogen in the workplace and cancer diagnosis can be difficult to define. For example, mesothelioma rarely appears less than 10 years from the time of the first exposure and it may only appear after 40 years. Cancer risk is highest when you breathe in carcinogens or absorb them through your skin. The level of risk depends on how often and how long your body is exposed to the carcinogen, the strength of the carcinogen, whether you are exposed to other risk factors, and how prone you are to certain types of cancer.
Occupational Cancer is Preventable
The presence of a chemical agent or situation in the work environment does not automatically mean that workers are exposed to it. There is no risk of cancer unless an agent is incorporated into the body.
Eliminating the hazard is the most effective way to prevent exposure. This control is followed by substituting products with less hazardous materials. Other methods of controlling worker exposure include: engineering controls (isolation; enclosure; local exhaust ventilation and process or equipment modification); administrative controls (good housekeeping, work practices, and hygiene practices); and as a last resort, personal protective equipment.
Employee training and education is an essential component of hazard control programs. Workers need to be knowledgeable about control measures as well as the adverse effects associated with exposures at their workplace.
Tips and Tools
Working with machinery puts workers at risk. Safeguarding is the essential first line of defense against potentially serious injuries caused by machine operation. Understand how safeguards can protect you and reduce the risk of injury.
Many machines found on shop floors and in factories have moving parts that rotate, reciprocate, punch, slide, grind, use toxic or corrosive chemicals, or generate extreme heat, noise, and vibration. Guards are permanent devices fitted on the machinery and equipment to provide protection against direct contact with moving parts, mechanical failure, electrical failure, and human error. When guards are missing or improperly used, there is the potential for injuries ranging from severe cuts to crushed hands and arms, amputation or even death.
Safeguards include barrier guards, safety devices, shields, awareness barriers, and warning signage. Some examples include wire cages around fans, blade guards on table and band saws, and covers on drive belts and electrical switch boxes. These methods can be used on their own or in combination to protect the machine operator and other employees in the work area. In some equipment, there is a built-in interlock switch that does not allow the machine to be activated unless the machine guard is in place. Never disable the interlock switch!
Hierarchy of Controls
When selecting a safeguard or combination of safeguards, always start at the top of the hierarchy to control the hazards. Use a lower control method only when the more effective solution isn't possible.
Control method and examples from most effective to least effective:
Elimination - remove the hazard from the workplace
Substitution - replace hazardous materials or machines with less hazardous ones
Engineering controls - remove the hazard at the source
Systems that increase awareness of potential hazards
Administrative controls - controls that alter the way the work is done
Personal protective equipment - equipment worn by individuals to reduce exposure
Never operate any equipment without a machine guard in place. If the guard is missing, your hands, clothes or tools could contact the moving parts, hot spots or high voltage conductors. If you think a guard is missing, do not operate the tool. Report the situation to your supervisor.
They are taking their aging, ill or disabled loved ones to specialist appointments, making meals, doing laundry, and helping monitor medications. And they do it all while juggling the demands of a full or part-time job. Known as “carer-employees”, they are the 6.1 million working Canadians providing care and assistance to family or friends living with ongoing conditions, while also working in paid employment.
Without workplace support, many of these carer-employees miss work days, experience reduced productivity, or leave the workforce entirely. To support these workers and keep them healthy and employed, employers can get help from the CSA B701-17 Carer-inclusive and accommodating organizations standard. This standard, plus its implementation guide, B701HB-18 – Helping worker-carers in your organization, are both free for a limited time.
“As our population ages, there’s an increase in the expectation for family members to carry this additional, informal caregiving role while continuing to work, usually full-time,” says Dr. Allison Williams, a professor in McMaster University and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) Chair in Gender, Health and Caregiver Friendly Workplaces. “This is having a significant impact both on employees and on workplaces.”
These guidelines recommend ways for employers to support carer-employees, from offering more flexible work arrangements like job sharing and the ability to work from home, to modifying employee assistance plans and benefits packages, as well as providing counseling services and options for paid or unpaid leave.
It’s an issue that, according to Williams, will only grow over time, with both employees and workplaces increasingly feeling the impact. “Employers really need to play a role here,” she says. “There’s a lot of potential for the workplace to accommodate and assist carer-employees through policy innovation that supports their workers in managing this critical, and growing work-life balance issue.”
Participate in a New Research Project on Caregiver-Employees
Are you ready to invest in becoming a carer-friendly workplace? McMaster University is looking for organizations to participate in an upcoming research study that explores the organizational need for policies to manage the effects of the aging population on Canada’s labour force. Specifically targeting caregiver-employees, this study will be collaborative and involve the implementation of a customized policy aimed at: increasing workplace health and work outcomes, supporting work-life balance, and reducing caregiver burden.
Participating workplaces will receive all data reports, results, and assessments specific to their workplace. If you are interested in participating and want to learn more, contact Regina Ding, PhD Candidate, Gender, Health, and Work at McMaster University at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Download the free Carer-inclusive and accommodating organizations standard (B-701-17)
Download the free Implementation Guide and Handbook
International Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) Awareness Day is February 29th. As the only “non-repetitive” day of the year, it's the ideal date to devote to raising awareness of repetitive strain injuries. Listen for tips to help identify the risk factors and avoid the patterns that can lead to these injuries.
The podcast runs 3:26 minutes Listen to the podcast now.
Take action to reduce or eliminate health and safety risks in your workplace with the new HazardAssess app, available free of charge on iOS and Android. Audit your health and safety conditions, identify concerns, and report them for action and follow-up.
HazardAssess guides you through 12 distinct health and safety topics, prompting you to describe the hazard and identify its source so it can provide you with ideas on how to fix it. The app allows you to take pictures and mark them up with circles and arrows if needed. You then have the ability to create a PDF report which can be saved and emailed to your organization’s workplace health and safety contacts for follow-up.
Links to prevention resources are provided so that you can learn more about various hazards and their associated risks, along with ideas on how to improve workplace conditions.
HazardAssess is a collaboration between CCOHS and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW).
Download the app:
iOS version from the App Store.
Android version from the Google Play store.
Many tasks at work involve lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying, holding, or restraining objects. This manual materials handling is the most common cause of occupational fatigue, low back pain and lower back injuries. Lifting is always hazardous, but the level of hazard depends on what you are handling, what the task is, and what the conditions are at the workplace or work site.
Share this infographic that outlines how employers can decrease lifting demands, steps to lift safely, and some tips for workers.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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