Occupational cancer: Cutting down risk at the workplace

As concerns about occupational cancer – and related regulations – continue to increase, so does employers’ responsibility to protect against it.

by Ulrike Steiger

In parallel to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, make sure you’re not losing sight of other legal developments aimed to protect employees. Carcinogenic substances at the workplace present an occupational hazard that’s continually on the radar – and one that continues to grow in attention. Today, increased awareness of occupational cancer and resulting regulations on carcinogenic exposure at work shine a brighter spotlight on employers’ responsibility in protecting employees against work-related cancer.

Occupational cancer contributes to rising deaths

According to the World Health Organization, with more than 3.7 million new cases and 1.9 million deaths each year, cancer represents the second-most important cause of death and morbidity in Europe. For many of these cases, the direct cause can be traced back to exposure at the workplace many years ago. This is especially the case for mesothelioma, from asbestos exposure.

Several factors play a part in the transformation of a normal cell into a tumor cell. One important influence is exposure to chemical carcinogens, such as benzene (seen in leukemia), acrylamide, as well as hardwood dust and respirable crystalline silica (seen in lung cancer). Employers have the critical role of identifying these carcinogenic substances at work as well as any processes that can cause exposure.

New occupational cancer OELVs & deadlines: The latest lines drawn for exposure limits

Many countries have enacted and continue to strengthen legislation to protect employees from cancer-causing substances and processes. Most recently, the European Union amended its Directive 2004/37/EC “on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work.” These amendments in January and June 2019 (effectual dates in February 2021 and July 2021, respectively) added occupational exposure limit values (OELVs) for various chemical substances classified as carcinogenic. Except for Spain, France, and Cyprus, most EU Member States have adopted legislation to meet the first, February, deadline for new OELVs.

Next up, the 11 July 2021 deadline. By this date, the EU requires Member States to adopt newly added OELVs for cadmium and its compounds, beryllium, arsenic, formaldehyde, and 4,4′-Methylene-bis (2-chloroaniline). Some EU Member States, such as Belgium, Italy or Luxemburg, have already implemented these changes. However, others, including Spain and Denmark, have yet to adopt the OELVs.

Employers should note that it’s not yet scientifically possible to identify guaranteed “safe” exposure for most carcinogens and mutagens. This means that you shouldn’t see OELVs as levels at which exposure to these substances does not lead to adverse effects. Therefore, aim beyond the OELVs and take any measure that reduces this risk of occupational cancer.

New considerations for diesel fumes & dermal oil exposure

Effective from February 2021, the EU considers handling certain mineral oils and work involving diesel engine exhaust emissions as carcinogenic processes. Their inclusion in the recent amendments to EU OELVs signals to employers how important it is to conduct them safely.

Mineral oils that have been used in internal combustion engines to lubricate and cool the moving parts present danger to those handling them. Employers should use best practices to limit dermal exposure, such as implementing protective provisions and procedures, including the use of personal protection equipment (e.g., gloves) as well as the removal and cleaning of contaminated clothing.

Concerning diesel engine exhaust emissions (for example, from diesel-powered forklift trucks or lorries), the EU has granted special deadlines. For these work processes, a limit value of 0,05 mg/m3 will apply from 21 February 2023 (with a 3-year extension for underground mining and tunnel construction equipment) in the EU Member States.

Taking steps beyond the standard to protect against occupational cancer

As we look hopefully for the day when medical science can eliminate cancer and its associated loss, we must continue to look for ways to protect our community today. To help do its part, your business must take an active role in preventing carcinogenic exposure at work. The first steps are identifying such substances and eliminating their use through substitutes where possible. From there, you should take suitable measures to preserve the health of your employees, such as implementing closed systems designed to prevent release of carcinogenic material into regulated areas, non-regulated areas, or the external environment. Lastly, make sure to continually assess the risk of occupational cancer in your facilities and adapt as regulations and awareness continue to increase.

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