KNOW Workplace Cancer
KNOW Workplace Cancer is a national occupational and environmental cancer project led by a group of experts from around Australia. For information about this project, please visit the Cancer Council Australia KNOW Workplace Cancer page.
The project aims to raise awareness of occupational and environmental cancers and educate employers and employees on being able to identify carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in their workplace and what they can do to reduce their risk.
On This Page
- What is workplace cancer?
- Workplace cancer resources
- How big is the problem?
- What carcinogens are in my workplace?
- Could my work cause cancer?
- What are the most common workplace cancers in Australia?
- Workers compensation and the Deemed Disease List
- Prevention is better than cure
Tell your workplace cancer story
If you have a personal experience of workplace cancer that you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. This includes if you have been affected as a family member, loved one or carer. Hearing real life stories may encourage people to get any symptoms checked out with their doctor, participate in the screening they'd been putting off, and highlight the importance of early detection and the need to have control measures in the workplace. Overall you would be supporting our work to beat cancer every day, in every way, and save more lives.
What is workplace cancer?
Within workplaces, there may be many different carcinogens that a worker may be exposed to. Often workers are exposed at higher concentrations and for longer periods of time than people in other environments and therefore have a higher risk of developing a cancer that was caused by their work.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviews and evaluates scientific literature on carcinogens. As of June 2020 IARC has identified 203 known and probable cancer causing agents and circumstances; exposure to a number of these agents occurs within the workplace.
Cancer Council Australia has developed resources (fact sheets, toolbox videos, posters etc.) on a range of common Australian workplace carcinogens.
These resources have been designed for employers, employees and health and safety professionals covering information including what the cancer risk is, what you can do about them, legal obligations and where you can go for more information.
Use the links below for more information on each of the carcinogen topic areas and for access to the resources available from the Cancer Council Australia website.
Be alerted when resources for existing carcinogens are added or when new topics are covered.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and exposure to asbestos fibres can increase your risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, including cancer. To learn more about the dangers of asbestos, the related health risks and how to avoid exposure to asbestos please visit the KNOW asbestos page.
Why not take theonline learning module KNOW Asbestos in Your Home, that is designed to give the DIY home renovator basic knowledge about asbestos, and the risks and safe practices when working with or removing, small amounts of asbestos-containing material.
For further international information on workplace carcinogens including solar UVR, diesel engine exhaust, silica dust and asbestos please visit the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health's No Time to Lose web-page.
A study conducted in 2014 estimated that 3.6 million (40.3%) current Australian workers could be exposed to one or more cancer causing agents in their workplace.1
A survey of the Australian working population revealed that the most common carcinogenic exposures in the workplace were:
- solar ultraviolet radiation
- diesel engine exhaust
- environmental tobacco smoke
- benzene - found in crude oil and petrol. Used to produce plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides.
- wood dust
- artificial ultraviolet radiation
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- organic chemicals released from burning organic substances such as coal, oil and petrol.
- chromium VI - occurs during activities such as welding on stainless steel and other alloy steels containing chromium metal.
Research conducted by Fernandez et al., ‘A priority list of occupational carcinogenic agents for preventative action in Australia', includes an extensive list of 38 carcinogens that were found to be the most relevant to Australian workplaces.
It also revealed occupational groups where exposure was greatest which included:
- construction workers
- manufacturing industry workers
- forestry and logging industry workers
- transport workers
Specific industries and occupations (listed below) have also been evaluated and categorised by IARC as known, probable or possible carcinogens. The list of occupations and industries does not identify the specific agents.
Carcinogenic to humans (IARC Group 1)
Probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)
Possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)
|Carbon Electrode manufacture
||Bitumens during mastic asphalt work
|Hairdresser or barber
Boot and shoe manufacture and repair
|Petroleum refining||Printing process|
|Coal gasification||Manufacture of art glass, glass containers and pressed ware|
|Furniture and cabinet making|
|Haematite mining, underground, with radon exposure|
|Iron and steel founding|
|Rubber manufacturing industry|
To find out more about specific links between occupations and cancer visit Cancer Council Australia's National Cancer Control Policy.
Developing an occupational cancer is dependent on a number of different things.
Cancer latency periods
Cancer often develops over several years or decades following exposure to a carcinogen(s). This period of time is called the ‘latency period'. Sometimes exposure to a carcinogenic agent for a short period of time, but at a high dose, can lead to the development of a cancer. Alternatively, exposure to lower doses of a carcinogen, over a person's lifetime can lead to cancer.
Because of this latency period, it can often be hard to pinpoint if, or when, you have been exposed to a carcinogen(s) at work. It also means that sometimes we do not think there is a risk with certain tasks we perform at work that could expose us to carcinogens, because there is no instant impact(s) to our health (i.e. difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyes, skin reactions, etc). Many occupational cancers have a latency period of 15 years to 25 years.
Wayne Higgs was diagnosed with maxillary cancer which may have been caused by a glue he used in his work environment. Wayne began his apprenticeship at 14 years old and spent most of his life as a motor trimmer upholsterer, in a job he loved. Hear Wayne's story.
Your risk of developing cancer is also dependent on the work health and safety control measures your employer has in place. Carcinogen exposure risks identified by your employer may have been eliminated or reduced using the risk management process.
Work health and safety laws in WA outline a duty of care responsibility for employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers. Similarly, workers are required to take reasonable care of their own safety and others around them, and are required to follow and comply with work health and safety procedures and instruction.
If you are concerned about the adequacy of control measures in the workplace, contact:
- Your workplace supervisor or management
- Your workplace health and safety representative or union representative
- WorkSafe WA
- SafeWork Australia
The top five most common cancer sites in Australian men and women, caused by exposure to occupational carcinogens, are shown below.
Annual % of total cases*
| Cancer Site
Annual % of total cases*
| Bronchus and lung
||29%|| Nose and nasal sinus
| Nose and nasal sinus
|Bladder||14.2%|| Bronchus and Lung
For a full listing see: Occupational Cancer in Australia 2006 (PDF 1.21MB).
*Number of cancers as recorded in Australia in 2000; excludes non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC). Although it is the most common cancer in Australia, Australian cancer registries do not routinely collect data on occurrence of NMSC. However, it is reported that approximately 34,000 NMSCs may be caused by occupation.
Most States and Territories in Australia have a ‘Deemed Diseases List' as part of their workers' compensation system. This list is comprised of a list of diseases that have been deemed by an expert panel to be ‘work-related'.
The purpose of this list is to reverse the onus of proof when a workers' compensation is made for a disease which appears on this list (i.e. the worker is not required to prove that an exposure at work caused their disease).
Currently, many of these lists are based on the International Labour Organization's List of Occupational Diseases under Convention 42 created in 1934. A recent review of the Deemed Diseases List was completed in 2015.
For a list of other common exposures and related cancers please view Table 2.1 on page 21 of SafeWork Australia's Deemed Diseases in Australia (August 2015) report.
If your work has caused or contributed to you developing cancer, you may be able to claim compensation. To be eligible for compensation, your work must have ‘substantially contributed' to the cancer diagnosis. It does not have to be the only reason you developed cancer, or even the main reason. Please read the compensation factsheet (PDF 391KB) for more information.
The only way to reduce your exposure to workplace carcinogens and therefore cancer risk is to implement appropriate control measures. This can be done effectively by using the risk management process and hierarchy of control (figure 1).
Figure 1: hierarchy of control
Cancer Council Australia has developed fact sheets around various occupational carcinogens, designed for both employers and employees. They provide information about some workplace cancer risks, how you can control them, legal obligations and where you can go for more information. For access to the fact sheets and information on specific workplace carcinogens visit KNOW Workplace Cancer under ‘explore this section'.
For information about how to implement changes to make your workplace healthier, visit Healthier Workplace WA.
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1. Carey, RN et al 2014, 'Estimated prevalence of exposure to occupational carcinogens in Australia (2011-2012)', Occupational and Environmental Medicine, vol. 71, no. 1, pp. 55-62.
2. Fritschi, L & Driscoll, T 2006, 'Cancer due to occupation in Australia', Journal of Public Health, vol. 30, pp. 213-219.
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