Lung cancer caused by occupational exposures risks

Lung cancer caused by occupational exposures risks Safety Forward

Work-related cancer claims 742,000 lives a year worldwide, a frightening statistic. Most lung cancers caused by occupational exposure risks are by repeated, long-term exposure, but even a severe, single exposure to a hazardous agent can damage the lungs. Some substances increase the risk of lung cancer and these include asbestos, silica, and diesel exhaust as people can be exposed to these through specific types of work.

Types of work that could carry a higher risk include:

  • Agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • Construction and painting
  • Manufacturing and mining
  • Some service jobs.


This was used in shipbuilding and the construction industry in the 1960’s. Even though the use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, some construction workers in older buildings might still be exposed to it. It’s made up of tiny fibres and breathing these in can cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lining around the lungs), as well as cancers of the lung, voice box, and ovary.

All types of asbestos can cause cancer, but brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite) are more dangerous than white asbestos (chrysotile). This is because brown and blue asbestos fibres are short and sharp, and much harder for our bodies to break down. There are strict laws about work that involves asbestos: for example, when working in or repairing structures containing asbestos. Smoking can also increase the risk from asbestos exposure.


It is estimated that 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of past exposure to silica dust at work. Silica is a substance used in some construction and material industries such as glass making and bricklaying. People who have worked as bricklayers can have a slightly increased risk of lung cancer and this can cause a condition known as silicosis, which increases the risk of lung cancer. Breathing crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, which in severe cases can be disabling, or even fatal. When silica dust enters the lungs, it causes the formation of scar tissue, which makes it difficult for the lungs to take in oxygen. There is no cure for silicosis.

Diesel engine exhaust fume exposure

Diesel exhaust fumes increase the risk of lung cancer. So, people who are regularly exposed to exhaust fumes through their jobs have a higher risk of developing lung cancer and this includes professional drivers and mechanics. Diesel fumes may contain over 10 times the amount of soot particles than in petrol exhaust fumes, and the mixture includes several carcinogenic substances, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer. Breathing in high quantities of diesel exhaust fumes can cause irritation in the respiratory tract within a few minutes of exposure, but prolonged exposure over many years may be more harmful.

Reducing risk

The HSE refers employers to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regime. COSHH is the key legislation that requires employers to control all substances that are hazardous to health, including exposure to carcinogens. In terms of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and the COSHH framework, employers have a duty to undertake a risk assessment and then put in place control measures to reduce employees’ exposures to carcinogens. In addition to the essential steps of introducing control measures to prevent occupational lung cancer, employers must also provide staff with information about the hazards, risks and control measures, and instruction and training to use the control measures.

Occupational lung diseases are preventable and we can beat occupational cancer if we work together to control the exposure risks.

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