Last reviewed 4 February 2020

Many business organisations have been busy making plans to recognise World Cancer Day on 4 February. This year is the mid-point of a 2019–2021 drive to increase long-term cancer awareness and encourage more positive action in society and the workplace. Controlling exposure to hazardous substances is one significant step employers can take, reports Jon Herbert.

World Cancer Day

While cancer has historically been a taboo subject, accelerating medical developments and the fact that today, many cancers are treatable and even more are preventable, make action a priority in the workplace.

World Cancer Day, led by the Union for International Cancer Control since 2000, aims to disprove misinformation, raise awareness and reduce the disease’s stigma collectively and individually under the determined banner of “I Am and I Will”. At least 60 governments took part in 2019.

This is important. Cancer kills some 9.6 million people annually, although 3.7 million of common cancers are preventable. The yearly global cost of cancer is estimated as $1.16 trillion.

Carcinogens and employer responsibilities

There is plenty companies can do to improve these statistics. Occupational cancer is usually the result of exposure to a carcinogenic substance at work in the form of solids, vapours or gases. These can be breathed in, swallowed or absorbed through the skin.

Employers have a legal duty to carry out risk assessments on all work activities and potentially hazardous substances and put reasonable measures in place to protect employees, visitors and anyone else exposed through work or a work-related process.

Almost all organisations use potentially carcinogenic substances, from ordinary paint products to bleach and cleaning materials, or dust. As an example of the scale of the threat, some 14,000 new breathing and lung problems are reported annually.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH)

COSHH is the legislation requiring employers to control substances hazardous to health and it is important to note that in January 2020 new or revised limits were made for 13 substances, known as Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs). Details are available in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication EH40 Workplace Exposure Limits.

Before starting a COSHH risk assessment, the HSE suggests employers answer three basic questions.

  1. What do you do that involves hazardous substances?

  2. How can these cause harm?

  3. How can you reduce the risk of harm occurring?

The hierarchy of controls

It is important to try to prevent exposure at source. For example, can a hazardous substance be avoided and/or a safer process used? A water-based paint is usually safer than a solvent-based product, particularly when applied by brush rather than spraying.

The next step would be making a safer substitute where possible — such as swapping an irritating cleaning product for something milder, or using a vacuum cleaner rather than a brush to clean up.

Using a safer form of a product helps too, such as a solid rather than a liquid to avoid splatter, or a waxy solid rather than a dry powder to avoid dust.

If, however, exposure cannot be controlled adequately, then the principles of good control protection need to be applied. The test here in terms of the word “adequate” are that risk of harm is as low “as reasonably practicable”.

That in turn means that all control measures are in good working order, exposures are below the WEL where one exists, and importantly, exposure to substances causing cancer, asthma or genetic damage are reduced to as low a level as possible.

Principles of good control protection

Eight generic principles are used to underpin good practices in the control of substances hazardous to health. Details are shown at All eight must be applied; their principles overlap. There is no ranking — the first is no more important than the last — although there is a logical order to their listing.

Minimise emission, release and spread

This is usually more effective and cheaper than trying to recover the substance after release and dispersal. Sources of exposure should be reduced in number, size and release rate. Care is needed; it is very easy to miss significant sources and exposure causes. The worst source should be tackled first.

Consider route of exposure

All three key routes — inhalation, skin and ingestion — should be considered. Physical, chemical and infection properties in specific circumstances are important. There is nearly always some exposure. Staff eating and drinking, washing and changing facilities, laundering arrangements and day-wear/work-wear storage/handling should all be considered.

Choose control measures proportionate to the risk

The more severe the potential health effect, and the greater the chances of it occurring, mean the stricter the control measures needed — taking into account the hazard’s nature, severity, magnitude, frequency and duration.

Choose effective control options

The aim here is to minimise the escape and spread of substances.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) — the final control option

PPE needs to be suitable, fit the individual, be worn correctly every time, and be stored, checked and maintained properly. PPE can also be fragile and easily damaged, and function incorrectly if used or worn incorrectly.

Check controls and review regularly

All elements of the control measures implemented should be monitored and reviewed to ensure their continued effectiveness.

Provide all employees with information and training

Employees should be told about, and trained where relevant, on the hazards and risk from substances with which they work, and the use of control measures used by their employer to minimise risk.

Make sure controls do not have consequences of their own

Ensure that the introduction of measures to control exposure does not increase overall health and safety risks.

Practical controls

Actions to consider include good general ventilation, extraction systems such as local exhaust ventilation, enclosing sources or where air cannot be cleaned, providing refuges and respiratory protective equipment, plus spillage capture, decontamination, clean-up procedures and PPE.

Control can also depend on ways of working, including operating procedures, supervision and training, plus emergency procedures, decontamination and permits to work for high-risk tasks. Records of examinations, tests and repairs to equipment should also be kept for at least five years to help identify trends or variations in equipment deterioration.

Where control measures are in place it is important to make sure they are used properly in terms of staff:

  • wearing necessary PPE correctly

  • using control equipment

  • following hygiene procedures

  • warning supervisors if anything appears to be wrong.

Cost of the cancer burden

Occupational cancer burden research is underway to understand the economic and wider impacts of work-related cancer and help the HSE develop and prioritise practical measures to reduce its impact on individuals, employers, government, and society as a whole in the future.

World Cancer Day stresses the international need to combat the disease while recognising that a large number of cancers are now treatable and many can be avoided. In the workplace, COSHH legislation supports this by requiring employers to control substances hazardous to health, including exposure to carcinogens.