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Could your workplace give you cancer?

News story

Chia seeds, acroyoga, crossfit and meditation: the world has never been so obsessed with health and wellness. But are these healthy pursuits in our personal lives being undermined by unhealthy work environments?

A skeleton sits at an office desk
Are we working ourselves to death? Image: Shutterstock

Well-known epidemiologist and John Curtin Distinguished Professor Dr Lin Fritschi is an expert in occupational causes of cancer. She says that in Australia, around 5,000 cancers every year are caused by exposure to something in the workplace. Very few of these cancers, however, are ever reported to compensation authorities, pointing to a lack of awareness in workers as to how these cancers were caused.

“People commonly have a misunderstanding about the types of things that cause cancer in the workplace, often attributing occupational hazards to heavy and dirty industries, such as mining and construction,” explains Fritschi, who is a researcher at Curtin’s School of Public Health. “But the most common exposures are actually UV rays, pesticides, diesel exhaust and noise. And increasingly, hazards such as being seated for long periods and exposure to shift work are now recognised as having long-term consequences on health.”

Fritschi has been researching occupational cancers – cancers that are caused wholly or partially by exposure to a carcinogen in the workplace – for the past 16 years. Together with colleague Dr Terry Boyle, she was one of the first to publish on the relationship between colorectal cancer and sitting at your desk for too long (and if you just stood up when you read that, you’re not alone).

Singular studies such as these, however, do little to capture a holistic picture of the unique exposure risks a particular workplace poses. Luckily for the more than 3 billion workers worldwide, Fritschi and her colleagues are working on a way to make assessing individual workplaces easier so we can more effectively protect ourselves from exposure.

“Measuring workplace exposures has traditionally been quite difficult,” says Fritschi. “Asking people about their exposures at work isn’t useful because a lot of people don’t really know. And as you can imagine, going into multiple workplaces and trying to take twenty to thirty air monitoring devices is not really practical.”

With the help of her colleagues Troy Sadkowsky, of Research IT Pty Ltd, and Deb Glass and Geza Benke of Monash University, Fritschi has developed an online research tool called OccIDEAS that is now used in large-scale research studies both nationally and internationally. The tool’s unique point of difference is that it asks people what they do at work, not what they are exposed to.

“OccIDEAS asks workers about the tasks they do, the equipment they use and the protection measures that are in place, such as ventilation or face masks,” Fritschi explains. “Then based on the answers to these questions, complex algorithms automatically assess the whether a worker is likely to be exposed to different chemicals.”

By automating this process, researchers’ time is then freed up to focus on those people and workplaces that OccIDEAS has identified as high risk. Importantly, it also means that more people can be interviewed and a larger dataset captured.

“Traditionally, a lot of the emphasis on health research and in occupational health regulation has been on the big companies in the traditionally dirty industries. As a result, health and safety is a priority for these industries,” Fritschi says. “But, 70 per cent of the Australian workplace are in small to medium-sized enterprises, which often don’t prioritise or have expertise in occupational health and safety. With OccIDEAS, we can assess exposures in large numbers of people in a wide range of different jobs, including these smaller enterprises.”

40 per cent of Australians exposed to carcinogens in the workplace

The improved datasets generated by OccIDEAS have also meant Fritschi and her colleagues have been able to develop a more accurate method for determining carcinogenic exposure at a national level.

“Using this new method, we’ve showed that about 40 per cent of Australian workers are exposed to carcinogens in their current job,” says Fritschi.

But it’s not all bad news. Most workers who are exposed to carcinogens at work do not develop cancer, with the level of exposure playing a significant role.

One of Fritschi’s first studies investigated the link between pesticide use and lymphoma, the most common form of blood cancer in Australia. She found that people who sprayed pesticides had an increased risk of lymphoma, but only if they used a lot of pesticides.

“If you go out now and again to spray your roses, you’re not really increasing your risk of cancer,” says Fritschi. “However, people who are increasing their risk of cancer are people who mix pesticides, who spray it day after day, who clean up the equipment after spraying. These are the people for whom we need to prevent their exposure.”

Work can be done to minimise exposure via what’s known as the control hierarchy: that is, elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering and administrative controls, ranked in descending order of efficacy. Where exposures cannot be controlled by this hierarchy, personal protective equipment (or PPE) is the critical last line of defence.

Workplace complacency a factor in continued exposure

PPE may be the last line of defence, but only if it is actually used. In May this year, Safe Work Australia released a report based on Fritschi’s studies which investigated carcinogen exposures in the Australian construction industry. It found that although the industry is generally proactive in health and safety risk mitigation, there was a varied use of exposure controls. For the 96 per cent of construction workers who are likely to be exposed to at least one carcinogen at work (and of whom around half are likely to be exposed to at least four) this is particularly worrying.

Carpenters were highlighted as an extreme area of concern. The nature of their work means they are highly likely to be exposed to carcinogenic wood dust, which has been shown to cause several adverse health effects including respiratory diseases, such as chronic asthma and nasal cancer. Yet the report found that 46 per cent of carpenters did not use any respiratory protective equipment or other control measures at work.

Personal protective equipment for carpenters

46 per cent of carpenters do not use any respiratory protective equipment or other control measures. Image: Shutterstock

Workplace complacency has also been identified as contributing to the increased exposure to hazardous coal dust for workers in Queensland coal mines over the past two years. It comes after several cases of black lung were detected in QLD coal minors ­– the first to be seen in 30 years – sparked a review of the sector’s respiratory health scheme.

OccIDEAS to be commercialised

Although OccIDEAS is already being used to assist occupational health and safety research in Australia, the US, the European Union and China, Fritschi has plans to commercialise the program to make it accessible to the general public.

“We would like to develop a smart phone app which uses the power of OccIDEAS to help individuals or small businesses understand what hazardous chemicals there might be in their workplace,” she says. “Through the app, users will receive an individualised assessment and links to authoritative websites where workers can get more information about the chemicals and how they can eliminate or reduce their exposure.”

The app will fill the gap in occupational health and safety expertise found in smaller enterprises, she says. And in the long term, she hopes to see it customised for use in developing countries where there is often virtually no expertise in occupational health and safety.

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