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Cancer in the Work Place

Following the latest theHRDIRECTOR round table on Managing Major Health Risks, John Picken MD of HealthScreen UK reviews cancer in the workplace and why employers need to put it higher up the business agenda.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently commissioned the University of Oxford to undertake an extensive study on the relationship between shift work and chronic disease. The decision was taken after an update by Dr Lesley Rushton on the Burden of Cancer Study which showed a high rate of breast cancer deaths in the shift work employee population.

The International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) has already concluded that ‘shift work that involves circadian (biological rhythm) disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans’ and classified it as a Group 2A carcinogen. To put this in context, there are 63 other Group 2A carcinogens including a wide range of chemicals. With up to 6 million workers involved in night shift work in the UK, this is potentially a much higher risk than most employers realise or are prepared for when considering their legal duty to ensure the health of their employees as far as is reasonably practical.

Other occupational cancer risks tend to reflect the nature of the work involved and the carcinogens present such as Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions which increase the incidence of lung and bladder cancer. Professional drivers are estimated to be the biggest worker group at risk here.

The HSE has estimated that there are 13,500 new cases of cancer caused by work each year, with over 8,000 deaths. The true figures are likely to be much higher because of the many links between cancer and work that are strongly suspected but not yet proven. The figures also do not include deaths from cancer caused by alcohol and tobacco use by people who drink and smoke more due to pressures at work. The TUC estimates that there are well over 20,000 new cases a year with over 15,000 deaths.

Whatever the figures, unlike hereditary conditions, all occupational cancers are avoidable which places a much greater responsibility on employers to adopt a preventative strategy. Not just for fear of breaching health and safety regulations, but also to reduce the significant financial and emotional costs of a cancer diagnosis. The trouble is that the prevention of workplace cancer has a much lower profile in the workplace than preventing injuries from risks such as falling from a height or using unsafe machinery. This is despite the fact that only 250 employees die a year as a result of an immediate injury compared to the possible 15,000 that die from cancer. In January 2011, the coalition government published its strategy for cancer, ‘Improving Outcomes’ which from a recent straw poll does not appear to have had much if any circulation within the employer community.

The strategy makes reference to the work by the HSE and states that, ‘It is critical to protect people from cancer-related workplace risks.’

At the same time, it highlights what employers can do to play their part in tackling cancer and how they will be asked to:
• support and enable their employees to reduce their risk of cancer by creating a healthier environment;
• raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer, enabling employees to seek earlier help;
• make it easier for employees to participate in cancer screening programmes by providing flexible working arrangements for screening appointments;
• adopt “cancer friendly” policies and practices for employees affected by cancer, where possible supporting them in staying in or returning to work;
• signpost employees to appropriate information and support on cancer, ensuring that no one affected by cancer feels that they do not know where to turn for support; and
• utilise their unique relationship with employees to enable everyone to play their part in delivering better cancer outcomes.

Whilst the incidence of most cancers is rising, mortality rates are decreasing due in part to earlier cancer detection. Employers who support the government’s strategy will benefit in terms of being seen as a caring employer but also financially as cancer is the second most common cause of costly long term absence. This is even before taking into account the cost of related insurances and early ill health retirement.

It is encouraging that cancer in the workplace is gradually losing its ‘taboo’ status and that more agencies including employers themselves recognise the need for it to be seen in the context of any other risk to the business.

How does your organisation approach the workplace cancer risk and where is it on your agenda?

We here provide further support papers from both the Department of Health and the British Journal of Cancer.

Notably, these papers were not common knowledge to the delegates on the day, and so we are publishing this literature online, to inform and assist readers with their workplace health risk strategy.

From the Department of Health
Improving Outcomes: A strategy for Cancer

From the British Journal of Cancer – three papers
1: Occupational cancer burden in Great Britain; 2: Estimating the burden of occupational cancer as a strategic step to prevent and 3: Occupational cancer in Britain, Female cancers: breast, cervix and ovary.

For more information please CLICK HERE

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