Controlling exposures to prevent occupational lung disease in industry

Call to eliminate occupational cancer –
why the construction sector is crucial


Press release: 14th October 2015

A new paper calling for European and international collaboration to eliminate occupational cancer has important implications for the construction industry, as the sector with the largest number of occupational cancer cases, the majority of which are caused by breathing in carcinogenic substances.

The appeal for a more ambitious target for occupational cancer has been backed by BOHS and the Chartered Society for worker health protection says the construction industry has a crucial role to play in this regard, as illustrated by the following statistics.

  • At least 8,000 cancer deaths and around 13,500 cases of cancer can be attributed each year to past occupational exposure but of all the industry sectors, it is the construction industry that accounts for the largest proportion (over 40%) of these cancer deaths and registrations.
  • Over 5,500 construction workers develop cancer each year and 3,500 former construction workers die of the disease, as a result of occupational exposures.
  • The majority of these cases of cancer are caused by breathing in carcinogenic substances: the most significant carcinogens in the construction sector are past exposure to asbestos (69%), followed by silica (17%), painting and diesel engine exhaust fumes (6-7% each).

The call to eliminate occupational cancer was made in a new working paper entitled Eliminating Occupational Cancer in Europe and Globally, written by Professor Jukka Takala, former Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and published by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).


The new working paper makes the following key points.


  • Cancer at work is a serious but preventable disease which is rapidly becoming the biggest killer at places of work in most countries. Previous global estimates on occupational cancers established that 32% of the deaths in the world related to work are associated with cancers. However, the paper warns that occupational cancers are quite rapidly being globalised and in many industrialising countries, the percentage of occupational cancer deaths among all work-related deaths is approaching that of the high-income countries. For example, in the EU, occupational cancer deaths are already at 53% of all work-related deaths.
  • The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 666,000 deaths are caused by occupational cancer globally every year, double that of occupational accidents. In the EU, 102,500 occupational cancer deaths take place each year, twenty times the number caused by occupational accidents. The UK’s share of this burden is estimated at 13,330. There is no doubt that cancer is the biggest killer at places of work in high income countries.
  • Research has shown that the ten most important occupational carcinogens account for around 85% of all occupational cancer cases in the UK. A hierarchy of elimination and control exists to protect workers and in theory occupational cancer could be completely preventable. However, cases of work-related cancer are still occurring.
  • According to the EU Carcinogen Exposure (CAREX) database, occupational carcinogens affect one in five workers in the EU whilst other research estimates that 23% of those employed in Europe are exposed to carcinogens.
  • It is estimated that around 4,000 of the 8,000 deaths each year due to occupational cancer  are related to asbestos exposure. The report warns that it is not just past exposure to asbestos that creates these problems, and that asbestos will be present in European working life for “decades” in the future, requiring proper regulation, management and removal.

Commenting on the issue, Dr Adrian Hirst, President of BOHS said, “This working paper resonates deeply with the aims of our Breathe Freely campaign, given that the construction sector has the largest number of occupational cancer cases, the majority of which are caused by workers breathing in carcinogenic substances. “

He added, “BOHS fully supports this important call for a more ambitious target with regard to occupational cancer. We also agree that with today’s solutions, as set out in our Breathe Freely initiative, most or all of occupational cancer deaths and lost years of life can be eliminated. The Breathe Freely campaign resources offer a wealth of practical evidence-based policies and practices which have been shown to produce results in tackling occupational cancer and these can and should be implemented by means of Europe-wide and international collaboration. ”

Eliminating Occupational Cancer in Europe and Globally can be accessed at


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