News Advisor ‘Cancer time bomb’ lurks in our workplaces
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‘Cancer time bomb’ lurks in our workplaces

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Thousands of Australian workers become cancerous each year because of their workplaces, with little hope of compensation, the nation’s largest funder of cancer research has claimed.

Job-related cancer has been hugely under-reported, with up to 3.6 million Aussies at risk, Cancer Council Australia said in a report released this week.

There are an estimated five thousand (or six per cent of) new cancer cases each year – as many as are caused by alcohol. And yet, fewer than 10 per cent of these victims are compensated, the report estimated.

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“We should be able to carry out a day’s work and go about our working lives without putting ourselves at risk of developing cancer,” the council’s occupational and environmental cancers spokesman Terry Slevin told The New Daily.

“If they don’t act, employers and regulators will be sitting on a cancer time bomb.

“Sure, we’ve been making some progress, especially in asbestos and tobacco smoking, but more needs to be done.”

Very few aware of the problem

The estimate that more than 90 per cent of victims are not compensated is difficult to verify, said a compensation expert at law firm Slater and Gordon.

But the fact that cancer-related queries to her firm are “very small” rings true, said Meghan Hoare, who leads the firm’s compensation team in Victoria.

“It’s a common diagnosis out in the community, but an infrequent inquiry that we receive,” Ms Hoare said.

Because of widespread ignorance, workplace protections are often inadequate, she added.

“There’s just not sufficient understanding of what the potency of some of these chemicals are,” she said.

“Even if people do turn their minds to it, they are often frightened to complain or raise the issue with their employer because they feel vulnerable about the security of their employment.”

Potentially everyone at risk

Many kinds of workers, from labourers to those working from behind a desk, may contract occupational cancers, a leading expert told The New Daily.

“Some of the more obscure chemicals, people don’t even know they are carcinogens,” said Curtin University’s Professor Lin Fritschi, who reviewed the study and whose research contributed to the report.

Knowledge of the problem is so scarce that even some doctors are unaware, Professor Fritschi said.

“It’s not being thought of as an important issue.”

The risks you should know

Getty sun exposureSkin cancers triggered by sun exposure are the biggest contributor to the number of workplace cancers at 77 per cent, the report estimated.
Getty asbestos victimAsbestos-caused mesothelioma cancers receive the lion’s share of compensation (72 per cent according to the report). “The cancers that do get compensated are the ones the average person knows about, like asbestos,” Professor Lin Fritschi said.
Getty firefighters australiaFirefighters are 45 per cent more likely to get melanomas and have higher risk of prostate, testicular, male breast, kidney and blood cancers, a recent study by Monash University found, because of their career-long exposure to a range of chemicals.
Getty pesticide farmGlyphosate, a common ingredient in weedkiller, is “probably”, though not conclusively, linked to such cancers as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the UN World Health Organisation recently warned. This could put farmers as well as hobby gardeners who use Roundup at risk.
Getty truckThe evidence that diesel exhaust fumes cause cancer is “strong and consistent”, said Professor Fritschi, putting drivers and many other workers potentially at risk.
Getty office worker seatedSitting and being otherwise inactive for long periods of time at work is increasingly being linked to cancer as well, either directly or as a cause of obesity, Professor Fritchi said.
Getty night shiftShift work has been linked to breast cancer alone, although “the jury remains out”, Professor Fritschi said. Working abnormal hours, especially the graveyard shift, seems to carry the greatest risk, possibly by throwing out the body’s delicate balance of hormones.
Getty wood dustThe risk of sinus cancer from exposure to wood dust is low, but confirmed. Because it is not very common, it is a risk that is often forgotten, Professor Fritschi said.
Getty welderMetal fumes have been linked to lung cancer, putting welders and other kinds of metal workers at risk, Professor Fritschi said.
Getty nail salonSolvents are thought to be linked to “quite a few cancers”, said Professor Fritschi, because these strong-smelling cleaning chemicals are easily absorbed into the body. Nail salon workers, painters, cabinet makers and others may be at risk.

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