Occupational risk factors linked to over 8,000 cancer deaths a year


Work-related cancer deaths account for 5% of total, new research shows - News

Adapted from a news release issued by Cancer Research UK
Wednesday 20 June 2012

Around 8,000 cancer deaths in Britain each year – around 5% of the total – are linked to the deceased’s occupation, according to a study published today by Imperial College London researchers.

The study, funded by the Health and Safety Executive and published in the British Journal of Cancer, also found that just under half of these deaths were among male construction workers who are most likely to come into contact with asbestos as well as other important carcinogens such as silica and diesel engine exhaust.

The researchers used a list of work-related cancer-causing substances identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to calculate the impact of work on cancer cases and deaths. They found that around 13,600 new cancer cases are caused by risk factors related to work each year.

After asbestos, which caused 4,216 cancer cases in 2004, the main work-related risk factors were: night shift work – linked to around 1,960 female breast cancer cases; mineral oil from metal and printing industries – linked to around 1730 cases of bladder, lung and non-melanoma skin cancers; sun exposure – linked to around 1540 skin cancer cases; silica exposure – linked to 900 cancer cases; and diesel engine exhaust – linked to 800 cases.

The researchers warned that these estimates of cancer cases and deaths linked to occupation are likely to be conservative. The true figure could be higher as new work-related risk factors are identified and potential risk factors are better understood. In addition, the estimates are based on the number of cancer cases in 2004, and there are now more cases of cancer than there were then.

Lead author Dr Lesley Rushton, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: “This study gives us a clear insight into how the jobs people do affect their risk of cancer. We hope these findings will help develop ways of reducing health risks caused by exposure to carcinogens in the workplace.

Asbestos exposure and shift work are the biggest occupational risk factors for cancer.

"The most common cancer related to work is lung – a disease which is hard to detect and has poor survival. Over 30 occupational exposures have been identified by IARC as definite or probable lung carcinogens.

“One of the best ways we can beat the disease is by preventing it in the first place. After smoking, reducing workplace risks can have a big impact.”

Asbestos remains the most significant occupational risk factor. Although it is no longer used in construction, maintenance on old buildings can still be a risk for workers today. The number of asbestos-related cancers will continue to rise as they can take a long time to develop.

Researchers said that some of the risk factors had an effect on cancer beyond the workplace. For example, asbestos can be found in some households and diesel engine exhaust contributes to air pollution.

Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s very worrying to see so many people developing and dying from occupation-related cancers. A large proportion of the deaths are a result of exposure to asbestos in past decades and improved safety measures should mean that in the coming years we will see this number tail off dramatically.

“The Health and Safety Executive has commissioned a review of the evidence on shift work and cancer – at the moment it’s still only classified as a probable cause of cancer. Once the review is complete in 2015, we will have a more definite understanding of the role it may play in influencing cancer risk.

“Not smoking is the biggest thing that can reduce the likelihood of developing cancer - there are around 43,000 cancer deaths due to smoking in the UK each year. Maintaining a healthy weight, cutting back on alcohol and taking plenty of exercise can also have a big impact on reducing the risk of cancer.”


L Rushton et al. ‘Occupation and cancer in Britain’, British Journal of Cancer Supplement, 20 June 2012.

Press office

Press Office
Communications and Public Affairs

Click to expand or contract

Contact details

Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk