kNOw workplace cancerkNOw workplace cancer

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Do you work in a job where you are exposed to asbestos, welding fume or diesel engine exhaust? Or are you a health and safety professional talking to workers as a regular part of your job?
We need your help to create entertaining and informative toolbox videos on these cancer-causing agents and what workers can do to protect themselves from exposure. It will only take a few minutes and you will be helping Cancer Council in their fight to reduce the incidence and impact of cancer.

Click the link that is most relevant to you:
I am exposed to asbestos at my job.
I weld or am around welders where I work.
Diesel engines operate at my workplace.
I am a health and safety professional.

Tell your workplace cancer story today

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.

NEW - Specific workplace exposure factsheets for employees and employers

Carcinogens are cancer causing agents. Within workplaces, there may be many different cancer causing agents that a worker may be exposed to. The link between workplace exposure and cancer is well known, and the research linking work-related exposures to a number of different types of cancer is growing.

Cancer Council has developed fact sheets around various occupational carcinogens. These factsheets are two page resources designed for both employers and employees. They aim to provide information about some workplace cancer risks, what you can do about them, legal obligations and where you can go for more information. For access to these fact sheets, other resources and more information please visit kNOw workplace cancer.

kNOw asbestos

Information about asbestos, how to identify it at work or in your home and how to reduce your risk of exposure

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 the online 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.

Workplace cancer

General information about workplace cancer in Australia

Carcinogens are cancer causing agents. Within workplaces, there may be many different cancer causing agents that a worker may be exposed to. Often these exposures are at higher concentrations and for longer periods of time than people in other environments. The link between workplace exposure and cancer is well known, and the research linking work-related exposures to the number of different types of cancer is growing.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), reviews and evaluates published scientific literature on carcinogenic hazards. By June 2016, IARC had identified 198 known and probable cancer causing agents and circumstances; exposure to a number of these agents primarily occurs within the workplace.1 Some of these agents are well-known to workers, such as solar ultraviolet radiation, or asbestos, however many are not commonly recognised as being responsible for causing cancer, such as wood dust or diesel engine exhaust.

How big is the problem?

Exposure to cancer causing agents in the workplace is thought to cause over 5,000 (or 6.5%) new cases of cancer in Australia each year.2 A recent Australian study 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.3 It has been estimated that occupational exposures are responsible for 10.8% of cancer cases in males and 2.2% in females each year.2

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Most common occupational cancers in Australia

The top five most common cancer sites in Australian men and women, attributed to exposure to occupational carcinogens, are shown below.

Annual percentage of cases of cancer* caused by occupation in Australia (five most common cancers only^).2


Cancer Site

% of total cases in Australia attributed to occupation

Male Mesothelioma 90%
  Brochus and lung  29%
  Nose and nasal sinus 24%
  Leukaemia 18.5%
  Bladder 14.2%
 Female Mesothelioma 25%
  Nose and nasal sinus 6.7%
  Stomach 5.4%
  Brochus and lung 5.3%
  Liver 5.3%

*Number of cancers as recorded in Australia in 2000; excludes non-melanoma skin cancer (see note below)
^for a full listing see: Occupational Cancer in Australia 2006

Note on non-melanoma skin cancer: Although it is the most common cancer in Australia, Australian cancer registries do not routinely collect data on occurrence of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC). However, it is reported that approximately 34,000 NMSCs may be caused by occupation. Find out more about non-melanoma skin cancer.

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What carcinogens are in my workplace?

Although IARC has identified many different cancer causing agents that are known or probable carcinogens, not all of these are present within Australian workplaces. Some substances are banned from use in Australia or are rarely or never used here. A list of occupational carcinogens most relevant to Australia is given below.

List of occupational carcinogens in Australia prioritised by Fernandez et al.4



Combustion products Engine exhaust, diesel
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzo[a]pyrene, coal-tar pitch, creosotes, cyclopenta[cd] pyrene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, dibenzo[a,l]pyrene, frying emission from high temperatures, mineral oils (treated or mildly treated), soots.
Second-hand tobacco smoke
Inorganic dusts Asbestos (all types)
Silica dust, crystalline, in the form of quartz or cristobalite
Organic Dusts Leather dust
Wood dust
Metals Arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds
Beryllium and beryllium compounds
Cadmium and cadmium compounds
Chromium (VI) compounds
Cobalt metal and tungsten carbide
Lead compounds, inorganic
Nickel compounds
Radiation Artificial ultraviolet radiation (UVA, UVB, UVC)
Ionising radiation
Radon-222 and its decay products
Solar radiation
Other industrial chemicals Acid mists, strong inorganic
Alpha-Chlorinated toluenes
1, 3-Butadiene
Diethyl sulphate
Dimethyl sulphate
Ethylene oxide
4, 4'-Methylenebis(2-chloroaniline) (MOCA)
ortho-Toluidine (2-Aminotoluene)
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), including PCB-126
Styrene-7, 8-oxide
Tetrachloroethylene (Perchloroethylene)
Vinyl chloride
Other Shift work that involves circadian disruption

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There are also specific industries and occupations (listed below) which are recognised by IARC as known, probable or possible carcinogens. The list of occupations and industries does not identify the specific agents that lead to an increased risk (however most of are likely listed in the table above), or the adequacy of existing control measures in place in workplaces to safeguard workers.

Industries and specific occupations identified by IARC as known, probable or possible carcinogens to humans.1

Carcinogenic to humans (IARC Group 1)

 Probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)

Aluminium production Carbon electrode manufacture
Auramine manufacture Hairdresser or barber (occupational exposure as a)
Boot and shoe manufacture and repair Pesticide applicators (spraying and applying non-arsenical insecticides)
Chimney sweeping Petroleum refining
Coal gasification Manufacture of art glass, glass containers and pressed ware
Coal-tar distillation Shift work
Coke production  
Welding (welding fume)  
Furniture and cabinet making 

Possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)

Haematite mining, underground, with radon exposure Bitumens, occupational exposure to hard bitumens and their emissions during mastic asphalt work
Iron and steel founding (occupational exposure during) Dry cleaning
Isopropanol manufacture by the strong-acid process Firefighter (occupational exposure as a)
Magenta manufacture Printing process (occupational exposures in)
Painter (occupational exposure as) 
Roofing (exposure to oxidized bitumens and their emissions)  
Rubber manufacturing industry  
Welding (UV [ocular melanoma])  

Most common occupational exposures in Australia

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 (second-hand) tobacco smoke, benzene, lead and silica. A comparison of exposures reported for men to those reported for women showed that a much higher proportion of males were exposed to one or more carcinogens at work, particularly those who hold a trade and are residing in regional areas. Occupational groups where exposure was greatest included farmers, drivers, miners and transport workers.

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To find out more about specific links between occupations and cancer visit Cancer Council Australia's National Cancer Control Policy.

Cancer latency periods

Cancer is a chronic disease, often developing over several years or decades following exposure to a carcinogen(s). This period of time is called the ‘latency period'. 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 jobs or tasks we perform at work that could expose us to carcinogens, because there is no acute (instant) impact(s) to our health (i.e. difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyes, skin reactions, etc). Some average latency periods for common occupational cancers are given below to show just how long it may be before a person develops a cancer linked with an occupational exposure.

Average latency period (range) for common occupational cancers in Australia.5


Cancer site

Average latency period

Bladder At least 15 to 20 years (minimum 5 years)
Leukaemia At least 10 to 15 years (minimum 1 year)
Lung At least 15 to 20 years (minimum 5 years)
Melanoma At least 15 to 20 years (minimum 5 years)
Mesothelioma At least 20 to 25 years (minimum 5 years)
Non-melanoma skin cancer At least 15 to 20 years (minimum 5 years)
Nose and nasal sinus At least 15 to 20 years (minimum 5 years)

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Could my work cause cancer?

Getting a cancer from a chemical or substance at work, or developing cancer because of the particular occupation you have or industry you work in is dependent on a number of different things.
Not all cancer causing agents have the same carcinogenic potential. 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.

Other factors together with your work may also increase your risk of developing cancer. These are often linked to activities not related to work but to personal lifestyle factors.

Examples of this include:

  • Asbestos exposure and smoking increases your risk of getting lung cancer
  • Diesel engine exhaust exposure and smoking increases your risk of getting bladder cancer

Your risk of developing cancer is also dependent on the various work health and safety control measures your employer has in place. Carcinogen exposure risks identified by your employer may have been eliminated or reduced implementing a rigorous risk management process into the workplace.

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 workers or employers 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
  • Work Safe WA
  • Safe Work Australia

Workers' compensation and the Deemed Diseases List

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). The Deemed Diseases List helps to simplify the relevant workers' compensation claims as it makes the assumption that there is a high likelihood that the disease in the worker was a result of an exposure at work.

A recent review of the Deemed Diseases List was completed in 2015. For the most part, many of these lists are based on the International Labour Organization's List of Occupational Diseases under Convention 42 created in 1934 and are out of date.

The recommended cancers for inclusion on legislated Deemed Diseases Lists are shown below

Recommended content of Deemed Disease List (cancers only).5


 Cancer type

Exposure or occupation

Salivary gland Ionising radiation
Nasopharynx Formaldehyde, wood dust
Oesophagus Ionising radiation
Stomach Ionising radiation
Colon and rectum Ionising radiation
Liver Hepatitis B virus or Hepatitis C virus exposure related to occupation, vinyl chloride monomer
Nasal cavity and para-nasal sinuses Ionising radiation, leather dust, nickel, wood dust
Larynx Acid mist - strong inorganic, asbestos*
Lung Arsenic, asbestos, beryllium, bis(chloromethyl)ether, cadmium, chromium VI, diesel engine exhaust, environmental (second-hand) tobacco smoke, ionizing radiation, nickel, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons**, radon-222 and its decay products, silica dust (crystalline), soot (chimney sweeping)
Bone Ionising radiation
Skin (melanoma) Solar radiation, polychlorinated biphenyls
Skin (non-melanoma) Ionising radiation, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons#, solar radiation
Mesothelioma Asbestos
Breast (female) Ionising radiation
Ovary Asbestos
Kidney Ionising radiation, trichloroethylene
Bladder 2-naphthylamine, benzidine, cyclophosphamide, ionizing radiation, ortho-toluidine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons^
Brain Ionising radiation
Thyroid Ionising radiation
Leukaemia Benzene, butadiene, cyclophosphamide, formaldehyde, Hepatitis C virus exposure related to occupation, ionising radiation
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma Ionising radiation


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* Covers all forms of asbestos, including actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite and tremolite; includes mineral substances that contain asbestos
** Includes coal gasification, coal tar pitch and coke production
# Includes topical exposure frim coal tar distillation, coal tar pitch, mineral oils (untreated or mildly treated), shale oils, soot (chimney sweeping)
^ Exposure during aluminium production
+ Excludes chronic lymphatic leukaemia

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 this factsheet for more information.

Any questions related to workers' compensation should be directed to:

  • Your workplace supervisor or management
  • Your workplace health and safety representative/Return to Work Coordinator or Union representative
  • Work Cover WA
  • Safe Work Australia

Prevention is better than cure

Implementing the various control measures for hazards is a very important part of the risk management process, and you should always follow the safe work practices in place at your workplace.

However, there are simple lifestyle changes that you can make to help reduce your risk of getting cancer.
These include:

  • Stop smoking
  • Move your body
  • Stay in shape
  • Eat for health
  • Be SunSmart
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Look after number one

For more information about how to implement changes to make your workplace healthier, visit Healthier Workplace WA.
Want to quit smoking or help your workplace become smoke free? Visit Make Smoking History.




  1. International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, Volumes 1-113. Lyon, France; IARC: 1972-2015.
  2. Fritschi, L. and T. Driscoll. Cancer due to occupation in Australia. J Public Health. 2006;30:213-219
  3. Carey, R.N., et al. Estimated prevalence of exposure to occupational carcinogens in Australia (2011-2012). Occup Environ Med. 2014;71(1):55-62
  4. Fernandez RC, Driscoll TR, Glass DC, et al. A priority list of occupational carcinogenic agents for preventative action in Australia. Aust NZ J Public Health. 2012;36:111-15
  5. Safe Work Australia. Deemed Diseases in Australia. Canberra, ACT; SWA: 2015

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