Recent research into occupational cancer, conducted for the Health and Safety Executive by Imperial College London, estimates that there were 13,500 new cases of work-related cancer each year, leading to over 8,000 deaths. Men showed a higher rate of occupational cancers than women, with 8% of male cancer cases being traced to exposure to carcinogens in the workplace. The rate for women, in comparison, was 2.5%.
Asbestos exposure a major cause of occupational cancer
The higher rate of workplace-linked cancers in men could be linked to the fact that the most common occupational cancer is mesothelioma, which is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used as insulation in the past, but we now know it to be dangerous when inhaled or ingested, and it is banned in the UK. Traditionally, men would have been more likely to work in professions leading to exposure to asbestos, such as shipbuilding, engineering and manufacturing.
Night shifts could increase breast cancer risk
Although male cancer patients made up the majority of workplace-linked cases, the study found that shift work may significantly increase instances of breast cancer – by up to 50%. It is suggested that up to 5% of all breast cancer cases could be caused by night shift work. According to the research, the disruption to circadian rhythms caused by exposure to light at night may increase cancer risk. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that “shift work that involves circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans”.*
A concern for employers
Imperial College London's Dr Lesley Rushton, who headed the study, is of the opinion that employers should be taking action now, in order to prevent a future rise in delayed cancer cases similar to those caused by asbestos exposure. Although we now know the dangers of asbestos, Dr Rushton argues, the earlier employers start acting on these new findings, the better: "Thinking about the new generation, it's very hard to say to the workforce it's too late because of course it isn't. We know for example if you stop smoking your risk of smoking related disease goes down, so it's not too late to help prevent some of these diseases."
Many workplace-related cancers develop over many years – symptoms caused by asbestos, for example, often don’t appear until 15-20 years after exposure. None of us can predict what the future holds, and a comprehensive critical illness insurance policy could provide you and your dependents with financial protection in the event of being diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer. This type of cover can provide financial peace of mind while you’re undergoing treatment, giving you one less thing to worry about.
*Source: L Rushton et al. ‘Occupation and cancer in Britain’, British Journal of Cancer
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